This blog is the second part of a series covering the insights I uncovered at the 2020 Embedded Online Conference. 

Last week, I wrote about the fascinating intersection of the embedded and IoT world with data science and machine learning, and the deeper co-operation I am experiencing between software and hardware developers. This intersection is driving a new wave of intelligence on small and cost-sensitive devices.

Today, I’d like to share with you my excitement around how far we have come in the FPGA world, what used to be something only a few individuals in the world used to be able to do, is at the verge of becoming more accessible.

I’m a hardware guy and I started my career writing in VHDL at university. I then started working on designing digital circuits with Verilog and C and used Python only as a way of automating some of the most tedious daily tasks. More recently, I have started to appreciate the power of abstraction and simplicity that is achievable through the use of higher-level languages, such as Python, Go, and Java. And I dream of a reality in which I’m able to use these languages to program even the most constrained embedded platforms.

At the Embedded Online Conference, Clive Maxfield talked about FPGAs, he mentions “in a world of 22 million software developers, there are only around a million core embedded programmers and even fewer FPGA engineers.” But, things are changing. As an industry, we are moving towards a world in which taking advantage of the capabilities of a reconfigurable hardware device, such as an FPGA, is becoming easier.

  • What the FAQ is an FPGA, by Max the Magnificent, starts with what an FPGA is and the beauties of parallelism in hardware – something that took me quite some time to grasp when I first started writing in HDL (hardware description languages). This is not only the case for an FPGA, but it also holds true in any digital circuit. The cool thing about an FPGA is the fact that at any point you can just reprogram the whole board to operate in a different hardware configuration, allowing you to accelerate a completely new set of software functions. What I find extremely interesting is the new tendency to abstract away even further, by creating HLS (high-level synthesis) representations that allow a wider set of software developers to start experimenting with programmable logic.
  • The concept of extending the way FPGAs can be programmed to an even wider audience is taken to the next level by Adam Taylor. He talks about PYNQ, an open-source project that allows you to program Xilinx boards in Python. This is extremely interesting as it opens up the world of FPGAs to even more software engineers. Adam demonstrates how you can program an FPGA to accelerate machine learning operations using the PYNQ framework, from creating and training a neural network model to running it on Arm-based Xilinx FPGA with custom hardware accelerator blocks in the FPGA fabric.

FPGAs always had the stigma of being hard and difficult to work on. The idea of programming an FPGA in Python, was something that no one had even imagined a few years ago. But, today, thanks to the many efforts all around our industry, embedded technologies, including FPGAs, are being made more accessible, allowing more developers to participate, experiment, and drive innovation.

I’m excited that more computing technologies are being put in the hands of more developers, improving development standards, driving innovation, and transforming our industry for the better.

If you missed the conference and would like to catch the talks mentioned above*, visit www.embeddedonlineconference.com

Part 3 of my review can be viewed by clicking here

In case you missed the previous post in this blog series, here it is:

*This blog only features a small collection of all the amazing speakers and talks delivered at the Conference! 

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