Posted on

netpp on programmable logic: IoT for the FPGA

For quite a while I wouldn’t have said, it’s impossible, but wouldn’t put much effort in it either. Why, if you have a spare $1 microprocessor that can run a simple netpp communication stack just fine.
Well, sometimes it’s time to try something else: Running a soft core CPU (ZPU) on small FPGAs has found some interest, due to the limited resource consumption, but full freedom when it comes to specific interfaces, such as

  • Programmable PWM engines (motor control)
  • Many RS485 capable interfaces (that classic uCs don’t have)
  • Safety proof specific state machines

The ZPU will even fit on a $5 FPGA and still leave enough space for the specific interfaces. It is a slow stack machine, even the fastest pipelined implementations don’t really beat the MIPS alike architectures, however this doesn’t bother us when we just have to configure a set of registers, moreover, the ZPU architecture compensates with quite some code density.

Also, for an update, we have implemented a faster, pipelined and configureable version of a stack machine with ZPU compatible front end, called ZPUng.

To keep a long sermon short: A full netpp stack running over a UART interface fits in less than 15kB of memory. And runs on a MachXO2-7000 from Lattice, for example, with less than 50% logic usage.
Who’s still saying that an FPGA is too dumb for the internet?

Ok, there’s one little missing piece: The TCP/IP stack and the ethernet MAC. Implementations that were realized so far:

  • esp8266 WLAN chip (not for industrial)
  • Wiznet 5100/5300 TCP-on-chip
  • Update: Hardware MAC (with DMA) for high data throughput (see cranach SoC)

This solution was presented on the Embedded World Conference 2016 in Nuremberg. The published documentation can be downloaded for free in the web shop.