Yesterday, I wrote a little about reconfigurable FPGAs attached to the PCI-Express bus as an addition to the general purpose computer. The idea revolves around being able to reconfigure an FPGA over PCI-Express without requiring a PCI reset (basically a reboot). In this way, as processing demands change on the host computer, the FPGA can be configured to process data in the most effective way.

The huge upside of being able to reconfigure an FPGA over PCI-Express is that there's no external programmer (such as Altera's USB Blaster) involved. The hardware needed to perform a configuration is all built into the FPGA and embedded in the operating system drivers running on the computer. This ability really opens up the possibility of having a large number of FPGAs connected over PCI-Express and configuring each one individually, quickly, and when ever you want.

On the downside, the initial configuration that is loaded into the FPGA at boot time sets the I/O interfaces up for each pin and can't be changed. This is fine, if you don't care about I/O customization. I'm envisioning a system where this isn't a large issue because the FPGAs would only be used for data processing, not for interfacing to I/O outside of the PCI-Express bus and a minimal set of devices located on the same circuit board.

Another downside is that currently only the Cyclone V, Arria V, and Stratix V FPGAs from Altera support configuration via protocol over PCI-Express. Cyclone V is the most attractive as the Cyclone family usually is lower cost than Arria and Stratix. Cyclone V doesn't appear to be available yet for public consumption which makes cost estimation difficult for those who don't have a standing relationship with Altera (myself included). The Cyclone IV has been available for a while, includes hard IP for PCI-Express 1.0, and is reasonably priced but Altera doesn't support configuration via protocol for that family.

Overall, for developing a PCI-Express reconfigurable FPGA system, the upsides strongly outweigh the downsides. I'm very excited about configuration via protocol!



29 July 2011