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ECE receives ZedBoard donation for research, education


Katie Carr, Coordinated Science Laboratory

Electrical and Computer Engineering students have started to use new design boards coupled with new design automation software in their classrooms and labs, and CSL and ECE Professor Deming Chen is one of the inventors of the algorithmic engine driving this software.

Xilinx, a leading provider of field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA) recently donated 25 ZedBoards and 50 design automation software licenses to the Illinois ECE department through the collaborative effort between the Xilinx University Program (XUP) and Chen.

Deming Chen
Deming Chen
“I started to work with Xilinx’s University Program when I came to Illinois. Once in a while, my lab would receive one donation board from Xilinx mainly for research purposes,” Chen said. “Recently, I met the university program director of Xilinx, Patrick Lysaght, in China, and our conversation focused on how to further strengthen the relationship between Xilinx and University of Illinois and also demonstrate the capabilities of ZedBoards and the new design tools among Illinois students.”

ZedBoards contain FPGA chips that can be programmed many times to implement specific circuits. This is different than CPU because the programming actually changes the hardware configuration itself. The boards each have a 28nm Zynq-7000 Xilinx FPGA chip that has embedded dual 700MHz ARM Cortex-A9 processor and around 100K logic elements.

These boards will be supporting ECE courses, such as ECE527 (SoC Design), ECE 445 (Senior Design) and ECE 395 (Advanced Digital Projects Lab). About one third of these boards were also distributed to ECE faculty members and graduate students for research purposes.

Additionally, Xilinx sponsored a two-day workshop at Illinois on November 11 – 12 to demonstrate how to use these new FPGAs for embedded systems design and how to use the new design tool, Vivado-HLS, to enable fast design productivity. High-level synthesis (HLS) is a new trend in the design automation field for generating register transfer level (RTL) code, such as Verilog or VHDL code, automatically from design entries written in high-level languages, such as C or C++.

The new design automation software is based on the technology Chen and his collaborators at AutoESL, Inc. invented. AutoESL, Inc. was a startup company that developed commercial HLS tools and has since been acquired by Xilinx in 2011.

Parimal Patel, Xilinx XUP senior systems engineer, and Jason Wong, worldwide manager of the Xilinx University Program, led the workshop, which included a variety of lectures and hands-on labs about topics such as basic hardware design, adding IPs to programmable logic, Vivado-HLS design flow, and creating a processor system to filter audio signals. Over 25 people attended the workshop, including both electrical and computer engineering and computer science students and visitors from Purdue University.

“The workshop is really exciting as the possibilities seem endless. Here we have a platform that can potentially house a complete system made of microprocessors and hardware accelerators. I look forward to using the platform in my projects,” ECE graduate student Sabareesh Ravikumar said.

CS graduate student Matt Sinclair added that he has always enjoyed using Verilog and VHDL to program FPGAs because he enjoys the process of mapping an application to hardware. However, this can be a tedious, error-prone process, both in terms of correctness and efficiency.

“The Xilinx workshop demonstrated how one can avoid this process by using the Vivado-HLS tool to directly convert C/C++ code into FPGA bitcode. This is an incredibly useful skill to learn and I'm glad that Xilinx was willing to come on campus and teach us how to utilize it,” Sinclair said.

Chen is an active leader in HLS research, who has worked on this topic for more than 10 years. HLS has experienced a significant amount of growth in both academic research and industrial practice in the past five years. Besides Xilinx and Altera (another leading FPGA vendor), other semiconductor companies, such as IBM and Intel have started to use HLS tools for accelerating their chip design process.

“Deming is the leader of the HLS research area at Illinois,” ECE Professor Wen-Mei W Hwu said. “He has created and led the team of faculty and students that received major research funding and won numerous awards in this area. This donation from Xilinx will help bring Illinois to the forefront of education and research in innovative hardware system design. This will definitely enhance our ability to compete for research funding and produce outstanding students.”

Hwu is associated with the Coordinated Science Lab.