Lower the cost of intelligent power control with FPGAs - Embedded.com

Lower the cost of intelligent power control with FPGAs

Combining a programmable solution with an industry-standard processor core can save time, money, and real estate.

The availability of ARM's Cortex-M1 32-bit processor and single-chip, mixed-signal FPGAs make possible the development of intelligent power control that could dramatically reduce part count, board space, and system cost while increasing reliability, flexibility, and system availability. Methods exist for rapid prototyping and implementation of the hardware and software for server-based intelligent power; these methods can also be applied to a range of energy-management applications. System considerations include development resources; tools available for development with Cortex-M1 and mixed-signal programmable system chips (PSCs); and availability of power control boards. Lowering the cost of intelligent power control requires an understanding of FPGA implementation strategies, as well as a basic understanding of designing with ARM's Cortex-M1 microprocessor and FPGA implementation tools.

As the number of functions in a system grows, power to the system is no longer an afterthought. With time-to-market pressures and the need to support more features, designers must select peripherals from a standard set of components to meet their power and cost budgets. As a result, this may mean mixing an LCD with a 2.5-V supply and a keypad with a 1.8-V supply. With many devices, the core and I/O voltage within the device will also vary. So, within a single product, the power supply may need to generate multiple voltages and possibly different sequences of the same voltage.

In portable applications, the restrictions can be even greater, requiring power management to extend battery life. Designs can therefore become quite complex, featuring multiple supplies, controlled ramp rates, power sequencing, and complex supply management where supplies are turned on and off as needed.

Intelligent power control has existed in some high-end systems as a custom implementation or more recently with standards, such as ATCA and MicroTCA. With the market now demanding smaller, portable versions of many applications, the power control must be scaled down as well, creating a need for intelligent power control that's low cost, small form factor, and low power.

Intelligent power control involves the following basic aspects:

• Generating all the required system voltages.

• Sequencing each device's power up and down to maintain system integrity and prevent issues such as latch-up, inrush current, or I/O contention.

• Supporting the ability to switch off certain devices when not needed and power them back up for seamless operation.

• Maintaining minimum functionality in standby, with the ability to wake at certain intervals or on-demand.

Implementing these functions in an application-specific standard product (ASSP) would require a standard power profile. The use of a programmable device, however, allows for adaptation to multiple system requirements. Programmable devices also allow for future system upgrades and fine tuning. A number of programmable power modules are available, but they still need to be combined with some form of brain to tell them when to turn each supply on and off.

As shown in Figure 1 , mixed-signal PSCs allow for the combination of programmable power generation with real- time analysis and control. Combining functions for power sequencing, monitoring, and control in a single chip results in significant cost savings in terms of materials list, board space, and build costs. In addition, a single device consumes less power and can manage the power supplies for the rest of the system. And, if the PSC can perform wake up from a watchdog timer or external trigger, the entire system can be shut down except for one device. Some PSCs can also manage smart battery charging, which is another intelligent way to enhance power control in the system.

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Early adoption of PSCs in intelligent power control applications has been facilitated by the use of reference designs, some in the area of ATCA and others in the associated intellectual property (IP), such as Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI). This platform-based approach lets designers start from a known system and customize it, or use a fixed standard and work it into their system. Some system management development kits also provide examples for a more custom approach to power control. This still requires a clear understanding of the PSC as well as a custom development environment.

Because the PSC's core includes standard flash-based FPGA gates, the Cortex-M1 core can be used as part of the design. This provides significant benefits to an existing ARM designer who must integrate intelligent power control without having to learn a full suite of analog tools. Cortex-M1 is fully backwards compatible with ARM's Thumb architecture, so designers can port existing application code to the PSC.

Although implementing a Cortex-M1 design on a PSC might be a new challenge to some engineers, certain tools and techniques can make this a relatively painless design cycle. Often the easy approach from a time-to-market point of view is the expensive approach from a cost point of view. But when the design tools are created by a silicon supplier, the motivation is to help the designer get to silicon as fast as possible.

Implementing intelligent power control
Standard FPGA design can take several different forms:

• Full HDL code or schematic starting from scratch.

• Combination of existing versions of design plus some new code and features.

• Combination of purchased or custom IP, existing design, and new code.

The same styles apply to both mixed-signal FPGAs and soft ARM processors on FPGAs.

The hardware and software implementation steps are shown in Figure 2 . To simplify terms, the hardware implementation involves designing the processor and programming it to the FPGA. The software implementation involves developing code for the processor on the FPGA to complete the application.

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First, the designer identifies available industry-standard processors (8051 or ARM, for example) for the design and then looks through offerings from each supplier to find the best list of peripherals for the design. If the perfect list of peripherals can't be found, then a CPLD or companion FPGA can be added to the board. When implementing a soft processor on an FPGA, the supplier should provide a list of available peripherals.

Ideally, the user selects the processor from a list. Then, the bus type, which is often dictated by the processor, is chosen. Once the bus is selected, the user simply drags and drops peripherals into the design. Peripherals may include interfaces such as serial peripheral interface, universal serial bus, timers, or UARTs. Unlike an ASSP processor, users can add any combination of peripherals until they run out of peripheral ports. The tool should provide the ability to auto-connect peripherals where possible and allow users to configure all other parameters and connections through a simple GUI.

Having designed the processor, users then generate and export to the FPGA layout tool. The processor may only be part of the FPGA design. The design may include additional glue logic or interfaces that aren't controlled by the processor. Using a simple block design tool, users can drop in the processor and any additional blocks to create a single top-level design for synthesis.

The design then follows a standard FPGA flow: synthesis, place and route, timing analysis, and so forth. Ideally, the Cortex-M1 processor should be delivered with a custom layout from the silicon vendor, indicating that timing analysis and optimization have been done. This ensures maximum performance in a minimum footprint. The layout should be customized to the device you plan to use. From here, the custom processor can be programmed to the PSC.

Board options
The choice of development environment is important. Buying a “demo kit” usually means you can get the design or board to do what the supplier intended. What you really want is to convince yourself that both the technology and your design have the ability and functional accuracy to eliminate the need to build custom prototypes–or at least skip the first round of prototyping. Look for a board that has the interfaces built-in, and has enough I/O available with connectors to work with your regular platform or peripheral board. In addition, key components, such as crystals that can switch out, increase the board's usability as a true prototyping environment. You should also be able to program and debug on the development platform.

Software implementation is similar to a standalone processor. The tool that builds the processor should export the appropriate files required by the compiler to create the application. Existing functions can be exported and enable the ability to work from a library of functions to control the peripherals. Custom code can then be added on top of this. For many processors, including Cortex-M1, the GNU environment offers free tools including compilers and debuggers. However, extra money does get you more mileage. Generally, the more expensive compilers will provide either better performance or less code space. Still, free compilers will get you a functionally accurate design and a long way through prototyping. If you're working with a lot of library functions, the functions should already be optimized, eliminating the need for expensive compilers.

Debug is the next phase of design. With a soft processor, the ability to debug both the hardware and software is important. Again, a preoptimized version of the processor helps, as processor debug won't be necessary. Some tools are designed to coexist, such as ModelSim, which runs the hardware, and GNU, which runs the processor application. It's best to get these tools from your silicon supplier, because the PSC is unique and other debug tools won't be set up to handle the architecture. Also, with a standard ARM processor, existing ARM debug tools support debug of the processor application, but not any additional FPGA logic.

All of the methods and strategies described apply to intelligent power control, whether the application is a simple handheld portable device or for a multiserver rack system. The desire to conserve energy and cost will continue to drive electronics in this direction, while also driving designers to meet these challenges for years to come.

Wendy Lockhart is a principal engineer at Actel. She holds a master's degree in electronics from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Lockhart can be reached at .

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