What is an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array)?


Due to the complex, data intensive nature of HPC workloads, computing infrastructures must be equipped to accelerate and enhance these tasks while being tailored to an end user’s application needs. 

In this blog, you’ll learn more about what an FPGA is, how it works, various use cases, and how Trenton’s solutions can support FPGAs to deliver secure, high-speed computing at the edge. 

What is an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array)?

FPGA stands for Field-Programmable Gate Array. It is a type of integrated circuit that can be programmed or configured to perform specific functions.

Unlike traditional application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), which are designed for a specific purpose and cannot be reprogrammed, FPGAs can be reprogrammed and adapted to different applications after manufacturing. This makes FPGAs very versatile and useful for a wide range of applications.

FPGAs are “field programmable” because they are designed to be programmed and reprogrammed after they have been deployed in the field. This means that their logic configuration can be changed without the need for physical replacement or modification of the hardware.

This flexibility allows for faster development cycles and lower production costs since a single hardware platform can be programmed in real-time for different applications, making it possible to switch between applications on the fly. 

FPGAs consist of a matrix of programmable logic blocks (PLBs) that can be configured and interconnected to implement different functions. They also have input/output blocks (IOBs) that allow them to interface with external devices.

FPGAs are used in a variety of industries and applications, including telecommunications, automotive, aerospace, and consumer electronics. They are particularly useful for applications that require high performance, low latency, and flexibility.

Why are FPGAs needed?

FPGAs are needed for several reasons:

  1. Customization: FPGAs can be programmed and reprogrammed to perform specific tasks or functions. This flexibility allows designers to customize the FPGA to meet the specific requirements of the application. This is especially useful for applications that require high-performance computing or signal processing, where custom logic circuits can be implemented to achieve optimal performance.
  2. Speed: FPGAs are capable of processing data in parallel, which allows them to perform operations much faster than traditional processors. This makes them well-suited for applications that require high-speed data processing, such as real-time signal processing, video processing, and encryption/decryption.
  3. Power Efficiency: FPGAs can be designed to consume less power than traditional processors, while still providing high-performance computing. This is especially useful for applications that require long battery life or operate in environments with limited power.
  4. Prototyping: FPGAs can be used as a prototyping tool to test and validate new designs or algorithms before implementing them in hardware. This can help reduce development time and costs, as well as improve the quality of the final product.
  5. Reusability: As mentioned earlier, FPGAs can be reprogrammed and reused for multiple applications or designs. This provides a cost-effective solution for companies that need to develop multiple products with similar functionality.
  6. Offloading: FPGAs can be used to offload computationally intensive tasks from a CPU or GPU, reducing congestion and latency; they can also be used to accelerate AI/ML/DL workloads, performing specific operations like matrix multiplication that enhance the overall performance of a system.

Overall, FPGAs provide a flexible, high-performance, and power-efficient computing platform that can be customized to meet the specific requirements of the application, making them a valuable tool for a wide range of use cases.

How does an FPGA work?

An FPGA works by using a matrix of programmable logic blocks (PLBs) and interconnects that can be programmed or configured to implement custom digital circuits.

These PLBs and interconnects can be used to create logic circuits, such as adders, multiplexers, and flip-flops, as well as more complex circuits, such as processors and digital signal processors (DSPs).

The process of configuring an FPGA involves specifying the desired behavior of the circuit using a hardware description language (HDL), such as VHDL or Verilog.

The HDL code is then synthesized into a netlist, which is a description of the logical gates and interconnections needed to implement the desired circuit.

This netlist is then mapped onto the PLBs and interconnects of the FPGA, which physically implements the circuit.

FPGAs also have input/output blocks (IOBs) that allow them to interface with external devices. These IOBs can be used to connect the FPGA to other digital circuits, such as microcontrollers or sensors, or to analog circuits, such as sensors or actuators.

Once the FPGA has been programmed, it can be reconfigured or reprogrammed as needed. This makes FPGAs very useful for prototyping and for applications that require flexibility or adaptability.

However, FPGAs are typically more expensive and consume more power than fixed-function digital circuits, such as ASICs or microcontrollers.

How does an FPGA work?

An FPGA works by using a matrix of programmable logic blocks (PLBs) and interconnects that can be programmed or configured to implement custom digital circuits.

What are the types of FPGAs?

There are several types of FPGAs, including:

  1. SRAM-based FPGAs: These FPGAs store their configuration in static random-access memory (SRAM). This type of FPGA is reprogrammable and can be configured at run time, but it requires external memory to store its configuration.
  2. Antifuse-based FPGAs: These FPGAs use antifuses, which are one-time programmable elements that are programmed by applying a high voltage. Once an antifuse is programmed, it cannot be changed.
  3. Flash-based FPGAs: These FPGAs store their configuration in flash memory, which is non-volatile and can be reprogrammed.
  4. EEPROM-based FPGAs: These FPGAs store their configuration in electrically erasable programmable read-only memory (EEPROM), which is non-volatile and can be reprogrammed.
  5. Hybrid FPGAs: These FPGAs combine different types of programmable elements, such as SRAM-based logic and flash-based memory, to provide a balance of performance, flexibility, and non-volatility.

Each type of FPGA has its own advantages and disadvantages, and the choice of FPGA depends on the specific requirements of the application.

For example, SRAM-based FPGAs are ideal for applications that require frequent reconfiguration, while antifuse-based FPGAs are suited for applications that require high reliability and security.

What role do FPGAs play within a cross-domain solution?

FPGAs can play an important role in cross-domain solutions, which are designed to facilitate communication and data sharing between different security domains or levels. 

FPGAs can be used in cross-domain solutions to implement secure data transfer and processing between different security domains or levels.

For example, FPGAs can be used to implement hardware-based encryption and decryption algorithms, which can provide high levels of security and performance.

FPGAs can also be used to implement data filtering and access control mechanisms, which can prevent unauthorized data transfer and ensure data integrity.

In addition to security, FPGAs can also provide performance benefits in cross-domain solutions. FPGAs can be used to implement high-speed data processing and communication, which can improve the overall performance of the system.

FPGAs can also be used to offload processing from other system components, such as CPUs or microcontrollers, which can improve system scalability and efficiency.

Overall, FPGAs can provide a flexible and customizable platform for implementing secure and high-performance cross-domain solutions.

FPGA Use Cases

Military Use Cases

  1. Radar Systems: FPGAs are commonly used in military radar systems for real-time signal processing and data acquisition. The high-speed, parallel processing capabilities of FPGAs make them well-suited for implementing the complex algorithms needed for radar signal processing. FPGAs can also be used to implement digital beamforming and target tracking algorithms, which can improve the accuracy and performance of radar systems.
  2. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs): FPGAs are used in UAVs for a variety of purposes, including flight control, sensor processing, and communication. FPGAs can be used to implement high-speed digital signal processing algorithms, such as image and video processing, which are critical for UAV applications. FPGAs can also be used to implement hardware-based encryption and decryption algorithms, which can ensure the security and confidentiality of UAV communications and data.

Critical Infrastructure Use Cases

  1. Industrial Control Systems (ICS): FPGAs can be used in ICS for real-time control and monitoring of critical infrastructure, such as power grids, oil refineries, and water treatment plants. FPGAs can be used to implement custom logic circuits for control and monitoring, which can provide a high degree of flexibility and adaptability. FPGAs can also be used to implement secure communication and data transfer protocols, which can prevent unauthorized access and data breaches.
  2. Transportation Systems: FPGAs can be used in transportation systems, such as railways and subways, for real-time control and monitoring. FPGAs can be used to implement custom logic circuits for train control and monitoring, such as automatic train protection (ATP) and automatic train operation (ATO) systems. FPGAs can also be used here to implement secure communication and data transfer protocols, which can prevent cyber attacks and data breaches.

By leveraging the programmability and parallel processing capabilities of FPGAs, military and critical infrastructure personnel can implement custom logic circuits and algorithms to meet the specific requirements of the application, while maintaining a high level of security and performance.

FPGA Use Cases

By leveraging the programmability and parallel processing capabilities of FPGAs, military and critical infrastructure personnel can implement custom logic circuits and algorithms to meet the specific requirements of the application. 

Where does Trenton Systems come in?

At Trenton Systems, we incorporate FPGAs into our TAA-compliant, COTS solutions that can be crafted to fit the customer’s application needs.

Our BAM servers, for example, support Intel® MAX FPGAs to enhance firmware security as well as AI/ML/DL workloads

Our hardware firewall cross-domain solution utilizes an FPGA to isolate network traffic from communicating with different portions of memory or virtual machines based on how sensitive the data is.

The FPGA can also isolate the different tasks running on the CPUs, securing criticalities from interference, tampering, and modification. 

These fully integrated, end-to-end solutions ensure that customers can securely process, analyze, store, and transfer data in seconds at the edge.

Closing thoughts

FPGAs, in many different variations, provide military and critical infrastructure personnel with customizable, high-speed, and low-power circuits that can be tailored to fit the needs of various applications. 

FPGAs reduce downtime and hardware costs while increasing efficiency, as a single FPGA can be instantly reconfigured in the field to support different application needs across harsh environments. 

FPGAs can also offload computationally intensive tasks from CPUs and GPUs, isolate critical workloads running on CPUs, and separate data with different sensitivity levels. 

Companies like Trenton Systems provide customers with solutions supporting FPGAs to enhance the performance, efficiency, and security of computing infrastructures and mission-critical applications.

Interested in learning more? Reach out to us any time here

Team Trenton is at your service. 🇺🇸





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