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First Impression (8) - The SoCKit Development Kit, A Terrace Perspective

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Ronaldo, the Portuguese one, has been named as this year's FIFA Ballon d'Or winner, that is he has been nominated as being the best footballer, or soccer player to some, in the world. He is described, arguably, as the most complete player of this generation of Champion's League footballers. Although, Lionel Messi might have something to say about that.

Just like Ronaldo, the Portuguese one, the SoCKit, originally developed by Arrow Electronics, could also be described as the most complete low-cost FPGA development board in the world. It could be, arguably, the best ever FPGA development kit for hobbyist System-On-Chip (SoC) and FPGA developers of its generation.

He wears a No. 10 jersey. I thought it was his position, but it turns out to be his IQ - George Best on Paul Gascoigne

However, unlike Ronaldo who is reportedly worth between €200 million to €300 million on the transfer market, in this blog we present the case why we feel our SoCKit is priceless.

If you were lucky enough to have seen one of Altera and Arrow's adverts at the right time on the right day, then you may have received an Arrow SoCKit for free. I did by attending one of their free seminars. Today, these kits are being sold for about $299 plus whatever import tax and other administrative fees that those that be (Customs and Excise, etc) can bill you for.

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Figure: The Arrow SoCKit: For $299 you get an astronomical amount of bang for your buck.

These boards were produced by Arrow electronics, but now seem to be manufactured by Terasic. If you do own one of these boards then you probably know that the principle hang out joint is at RocketBoards (www.rocketboards.org). There one can find many ongoing projects, or start one of their own, for this  great all round kit.

As stated above, if Ronaldo, the Portuguese one, is regarded as the complete footballer, then the SoCKit could and should be seen as the complete low-cost evaluation kit. Although, as a low-cost FPGA development board and evaluation kit it isn't exactly cheap and some may need to become a piggy-bank shaker to purchase one, when other costs including local taxes are considered, as mentioned previously.

This is not surprising given the range of features available on this TBD mm by TBD mm development board. However, rather than just list the boards features and since we boldly claim the SoCKit can be mentioned in the same vein of breath, as Ronaldo (The Portuguese one - Ed), it is only fair that we discuss why.

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If football is considered to be a game of two-halves then the SoCKit could be considered to be a digital playground of two inter-connected arenas. One containing the FPGA's programmable logic, which practically consists of a sea of digital gates and the other the Hardware Processor System (HPS), consisting of dual ARM Cortex-A9 processors.

Having FPGA logic and an embedded processor system on the same die is not untypical of most FPGA SoC systems, from all the vendors. However, what makes this one quite unique is that both the FPGA and HPS systems connect to independent high density, 1Gb DDR3, memory and reset systems. This allows the developer of either sub-system to work independently on designs. The two halves communicate with each other using ARM's AXI Protocol.

An external 12V DC power supply connector on the SoCKit is powered by the included 12V DC power adapter. I don't know how much power this board consumes, but it is safe to say that you won't be powering it from one of its USB sockets. This power supply is also used to provide power to the High-Speed Mezzaine Connector (HSMC), which can supply 12V at 1A and 3.3V at 1.5A to a daughter card. (NB. we should be demonstrating this in the near future with our dual Raspberry Pi camera project).

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Figure: Messi, a multiple Ballon d'Or winner, lost out again this year. [Image taken from www.fcbarcelona.com]. Comparing Messi to Ronaldo is like comparing the SoCKit to the Zedboard, which can lead to hours of debate and valuable programming time being lost.

It is the many features of the SoCKit that make it a multiple winner, like Messi, in our eyes (Whatever! - Ed). However, in what areas of its arena does the SoCKit really excel at, like Ronaldo? Well, we could categorise its abilities in such a way that we can provide a direct comparison between the two.

Heading

Ronaldo has been renowned for his heading ability, which can be traced all the way back to his Manchester United (Never heard of them - Ed) days, where he scored an abundance of goals with his head and not his hand, LOL! Like Ronaldo, the SoCKit has an abundance of headers the principle one being the HSMC connector, which can be found on most Altera FPGA development boards.

Although, we may see a departure from this trend soon, as a FMC connector has been sported on the new Arria 10 development kit. Lets hope that at least one or two Arria 10 development boards and kits will have a HSMC connector or two on them, when released.

This header provides users with a total of 8 high-speed differential transceivers that can operate at 3.125 Gbps (The Cyclone V GT and ST family support 6.144G transceivers). The 8 CDR transmitters and 8 CDR receivers can be used to implement many high-speed differential signalling standards, including PCI Express.  The HSMC header also provides access to an ample number of Low Voltage Differential Signal (LVDS) pair clock and data signals, which can also be used as single-ended signals.

Passing and Creativity

Ronaldo is famed for his midfield creativity, although lacking the ability, IOHO of being able to influence a game, as evidenced when playing for Portugal in the 2014 world cup. However, in comparison if the SoCKit is envisioned as a footballer, then it would be regarded as the complete creative  and influential midfielder and here is the reason why.

Apart from the already mentioned dual ARM Cortex-A9 cores the SoCKit provides users with 110,000 Logic Elements (LEs) to create any design to their hearts content. Make no mistake about it for hobbyist designs this is a huge amount of digital logic to pass between different aspects of a digital design.The FPGA fabric also includes  5,140 Kbits of embedded memory and 112 variable-precision Digital Signal Processing (DSP) blocks.

The Cortex-A9 cores can be directly programmed in C/C++, using the standard ARM programming tools or the GCC cross-complier variants. Alternatively, one can download a Linux kernel that has been especially compiled to run on the SoCKit, which supports most of its peripherals including Ethernet and a 3D accelerometer.

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Figure: The Cyclone V SX SoC on the SoCKit is the top of the range 5CSXC6 device, which has 41,509 Adaptive Logic Modules (ALMs) and 110K Logic Elements (LEs).

The Cyclone V SoC 5CSXFC6D6F31 device found on the SoCKit can also be used with Altera's OpenCL SDK. Although, currently, a separate OpenCL SDK license must be purchased to use it. However, if one does decide to program in OpenCL it can save a lot of programming time and debugging effort, as it provides a level of abstraction away from programming in a Hardware Description Language (HDL).

Team Player

Ronaldo is a great team player and  the SoCKit compares favourably in this category, too.  Whether one is using one of its 6 fractional Phase-Locked Loops (PLLs) or reading and writing to the external memories using the 2 hard memory controllers, there is enough on this board for a whole project team to participate. The processor system is connected to 128MB of QSPI flash memory and a Micro SD Card Socket, as well as USB OTG, Ethernet and UART interfaces.

A 24-bit CODEC with line-in, line-out and microphone jacks is also connected to the FPGA. However, quite bizarrely only a 24-bit Video DAC is provided for video output. We would have preferred for the Video DAC to have been a HDMI connector or even better still a DVI one, which would have allowed developers to target their designs at the rapidly emerging 4K monitors.

Conclusion

001-006-000052b.pngThe SoCKit is an all round low-cost development board and has the ability to do for design engineers what the bikini  has done for beach wear, bring FPGA design to the mainstream. Although, this board may be out of the price range of many hobbyists  the abundance of logic  elements, supported IO standards and attached peripherals make this a development board with long term prospects.

Also, with OpenCL emerging as a viable alternative to HDL programming the SoCKit provides a reasonable gateway and a good investment into OpenCL programming using FPGAs too.  We would award the FPGA Ballon d'Or to the SoCKit, as it is up there with the best, including Ronaldo, the Portuguese one, himself.

However, if there is one area where Ronaldo beats the SoCKit hands down it is in his companion Irina Shayk, but with Altera's Arria 10 FPGA, with their hardened floating-point units, just round the corner from release who knows? A low cost Arria 10 SoCKit equivalent may provide the perfect partner, even Ronaldo can't claim that, can he?

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