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Altera's Arria V Starter Kit - A Preview

0000452 If you are the type of person that judges a book by it's cover then you may have high expectations of one of Altera's new, exciting-looking FPGA development kits, based on their recently introduced 28nm portfolio of FPGAs. The kit in question is the Arria V GX Starter Kit and the good news is that your high expectations are likely to be met. This kit should have enough "oomph" to inspire your next  magnum opus, as we found out ourselves at one of Altera's Video Design Framework Workshops, hosted recently here in the UK.

The Arria family of FPGAs have been developed by Altera in an attempt to capture the mid-range FPGA market. Specifically, the latest generation, the Arria V range, has been fabricated using 28nm processes  for applications that require high bandwidth in conjunction with low power consumption. If Altera's Stratix family of FPGAs are considered to be the iPad of FPGAs, then the Arria family would be the equivalent of the iPad minis.

The kit,  currently populated with the Arria 5AGXB3 Engineering Sample (ES), has been cleverly introduced as a teaser to designers considering the use of FPGAs, according to Altera's website, in midrange applications.  Included in this range are remote radio units, 10G/40G line cards and broadcast radio equipment. Cognitive radio could be an ideal application area for this kit, too.

Figure 1: Altera's Arria V GX Starter Board. [Taken from the Arria V GX Starter Board Reference Manual, Altera Corp]

One application area where we feel that this card is bound to excel is, as a budget plugin PCIe accelerator card, in High Performance Computing (HPC) applications. Its x8 Peripheral Component Interface Express (PCIe) slot should fit quite snuggly into that spare x8 or x16 PCIe slot on your motherboard. However, although the Arria V PCIe hard IP endpoint  supports up to eight multi-functions and Gen1 x 8 lanes, only Gen2 x4 lane configurations are supported.

As mentioned previously, the  1152-pin FineLine BGA (BGA) Arria V GX used, has two embedded PCI express hard IP blocks, which implement the PCIe physical, data link and transaction layers directly in silicon. Although only the hard IP block connected to the  PCIe x8 slot is actually available for use. The other has been sacrificed to provide the user with the overlaping high-speed transceiver functionality.

The starter kit has as an array of peripherals and components that are slanted towards high-end multimedia applications, nonetheless it is equally suited  for general purpose applications too. Some of the external components and devices, on the kit, are explored further below. However, this starter kit is all about the Arria V GX 5AGXFB3H4F35C5NES, a member of the Arria V family of FPGAs that does not  contain the embedded, dual Arm Cortex-9, processors.

Although this family supports the more than adequate,  medium speed, 6.5536 Gbps transcievers, it does not support the high-speed 10.3125 Gbs tranceivers that are exclusive to the Arria V GT family. Neither does it support the 12.5 Gbps ones available in the Arria V GZ devices.

The Arria V GX
You know that your starter kit is in exalted company when the FPGA on it has its own personal heat dissipation device, albeit in this case a small fan. It clearly makes a statement of intent, that this card will put in an almighty kick, when configured to do so, expending a lot of energy in the process.

However, the environmental cost of using this device will be of less concern to the financially challenged hobbyist compared to the cost of the card itself. This card  "ain't" cheap, although compared to the cost of the Arria V devices themslves it could be considered to be a bargain. In some ways it's reminescent of the comparable cost of the DE0-Nano development and education board (review link) and the Cyclone IV FPGA devices, which they are populated with, when bought standalone.

Irrespective of the cost, the Arria V GX Starter Kit has the potential to take the FPGA hobbyist to new stratospheric design heights, propelling the hobyists one step further along the FPGA development curve of sophistication in the process! So what makes the Arria V so desirable and why could a fan be needed? A clue could be found in the internal resource block diagram shown below.


Figure 2: Device chip overview for the Arria V GX and GT devices. [Taken from the Arria V Device Overview, Altera Corp]

Rapid heat dissipation may be required when its twenty-four, 6.375 Gbps capable, backplane transceivers are constantly transmitting and receiving data in your FPGA cognitive radio processor application. It may, equally, be when some of its 2,090, 18x18 multipliers are crunching away in your latest computational photography application.

It may well be that the fan is twirling seemlessly and hence dissipating the excessive  heat when the FPGAs variable precision DSP blocks, of which there are 1,045, are grinding away in that experimental text searching application. Either way this card is feature rich and offers no hiding place for those without creative, compute-intensive processing applications in mind and energy to burn.

The Components and Devices

Micron's DDR3 memory devices (MT41J64M16LA-15E) are used as external storage, accessible through a 32-bit wide data bus. The memory can be controlled by either the internal hard IP memory controller, of which there are four, or by a custom memory controller IP. The maximum data transfer rate, using either controller, can be up to 1333 Mega Transfers per second (MT/s). Available, also, is 18Mb of SSRAM (IS61VPS51236A), which shares an address and data bus with flash memory.

SDI-3G support is provided in the form of a single 2.970 Gb/s serial link, accessible through two, single-ended, 75 ohm SMB connectors. A cable driver (LMH0303) and a cable equalizer (LMH0384) provide SDI support external to the FPGA. In conjunction with the driver and equalizer is a user programmable  Voltage-Controlled Crystal Oscillator (VCXO) (Si571) used to generate the  148.5 MHz (EU) or 148.35 (US) MHz video frequency . Additional video support is available in the form of a  HDMI 1.3 through   TDMS level shifter, which supports television resolutions up to 1080p at 12-bits per colour.

Although HDMI 1.4 is not supported directly, the ubiquitous High Speed Mezzaine Connector (HSMC) can be used to interface to an external HDMI 1.4 transceiver. The HSMC interface provides eight channels of 6.5536 Gbps-capable transceivers, as well as 17 LVDS channels that could be used to support SPI4.2. The HSMC port also supports LVDS and single-ended clock signals.

The standard sized PCIe board supports up to 1000 base T-Ethernet using an external Marvell 88E1111 PHY. The Reduced Gigabit Media Independent Interface (RGMII) is used as the interconnect between the PHY and the Arria V. It is expected that the Ethernet's MAC layer should be implemented in the FPGA. The full range of peripherals can be seen in the block diagram below.

Figure 3: Altera's Arria V GX Starter Board Block Diagram. [Taken from the Arria V GX Starter Board Reference Manual, Altera Corp]

Before we discuss some slight niggles that we have about this card, firstly we would like to summarise what we do like about the card and put simply, its everything else. We have been on the market for a "barely" affordable PCIe card, like this one, for quite a  while now. A card to unite the disciplines of LINUX programming, scientific computing and FPGA development using HDL and/or OpenCL. We now feel that this is the one, the one card to unite them all! Saying all that now for the niggles.

Disappointingly, this card does not provide a slow to medium speed serial interface, which would be  useful for rapid debugging, in the form of a standalone USB or bog standard RS232 port. Although limited feedback should be accessible through the built-in, USB 2.0, USB Blaster II.

Also, given the amount of power that this card could potentially consume, we would have liked to have seen the 6-way power connector commonly found on PCIe graphics cards, as the external power supply source connector. This would have allowed the card to source power directly from a PC's ATX power supply, when used internaly within a PC. Instead, it has the less useful, IOHO, laptop compatible power supply connector.

Also, disappointingly, when you purchase this card you get a one years use of the subscription edition of  Altera's Quartus II software. This entitles you to use the software to develop for the Arria V device, which is not supported by the Quartus web edition. At the end of the one year period, after your subscription has timed out, you will still be able to use  the installed subscription version of the Quartus software. However,  your license will not support future editions of the software released after this one year period. To take advantage of updates you will need to maintain your Quartus II subscription edition license, which for a hobbyist is not cheap.

All in all it would not be unsurprising to see a starter kit like this on a FPGA geek's bucket list  "No n: To one day acquire a dev board with an FPGA on it, that  requires cooling". If so this is it. This starter  kit is for the ideas person, for the FPGA programmer that is going places.  For the hobbyist that has clear cut ambitions to take mainstream computing out of the CPU domain and into the accelerated FPGA one. We have ideas, probably too many of them, and we expect to realise some of them by purchasing this card. If you felt that Charlie had a wonderful time in the chocolate factory wait until we get our hands on this card. When we do you can read all about our experiences in future articles on this website.


  1. Arria GX Starter Board Reference Manual, Oct 2012, Altera Corp.
  2. Arria V Device Overview, Oct 2012, Altera Corp.
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