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Best $100-$300 FPGA development board in 2018?
Hello, I’ve been trying to decide on a FPGA development board, and have only been able to find posts and Reddit threads from 4-5 years ago. So I wanted to start a new thread and ask about the best “mid-range” FGPA development board in 2018. (Price range $100-$300.) I started with this Quora answer about FPGA boards, from 2013. The Altera DE1 sounded good. Then I looked through the Terasic DE boards. Then I found this Reddit thread from 2014, asking about the DE1-SoC vs the Cyclone V GX Starter Kit: https://www.reddit.com/FPGA/comments/1xsk6w/cyclone_v_gx_starter_kit_vs_de1soc_board/ (I was also leaning towards the DE1-SoC.) Anyway, I thought I better ask here, because there are probably some new things to be aware of in 2018. I’m completely new to FPGAs and VHDL, but I have experience with electronics/microcontrollers/programming. My goal is to start with some basic soft-core processors. I want to get some C / Rust programs compiling and running on my own CPU designs. I also want to play around with different instruction sets, and maybe start experimenting with asynchronous circuits (e.g. clock-less CPUs) Also I don’t know if this is possible, but I’d like to experiment with ternary computing, or work with analog signals instead of purely digital logic. EDIT: I just realized that you would call those FPAAs, i.e. “analog” instead of “gate”. Would be cool if there was a dev board that also had an FPAA, but no problem if not. EDIT 2: I also realized why "analog signals on an FPGA" doesn't make any sense, because of how LUTs work. They emulate boolean logic with a lookup table, and the table can only store 0s and 1s. So there's no way to emulate a transistor in an intermediate state. I'll just have play around with some transistors on a breadboard. UPDATE: I've put together a table with some of the best options:
A very simple FPGA development board that plugs into a Raspberry Pi, so you have a "backup" hard-core CPU that can control networking, etc. Supports a huge range of pmod accessories. You can write a program/circuit so that the Raspberry Pi CPU and the FPGA work together, similar to a SoC. Proprietary bitstream is fully reverse engineered and supported by Project IceStorm, and there is an open-source toolchain that can compile your hardware design to bitstream. Has everything you need to start experimenting with FPGAs.
Xilinx Zynq 7-Series SoC - ARM Cortex-A9 processor, and Artix-7 FPGA. 125 IO pins. 1GB DDR2 RAM. Texas Instruments WiLink 8 wireless module for 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1. No LEDs or buttons, but easy to wire up your own on a breadboard. If you want to use a baseboard, you'll need a snickerdoodle black ($195) with the pins in the "down" orientation. (E.g. The "breakyBreaky breakout board" ($49) or piSmasher SBC ($195)). The snickerdoodle one only comes with pins in the "up" orientation and doesn't support any baseboards. But you can still plug the jumpers into the pins and wire up things on a breadboard.
Has one of the latest Xilinx SoCs. 2 GB (512M x32) LPDDR4 Memory. Wi-Fi / Bluetooth. Mini DisplayPort. 1x USB 3.0 type Micro-B, 2x USB 3.0 Type A. Audio I/O. Four user-controllable LEDs. No buttons and limited LEDs, but easy to wire up your own on a breadboard
Xilinx Zynq 7000 SoC (ARM Cortex-A9, 7-series FPGA.) 1 GB DDR3 RAM. A few switches, push buttons, and LEDs. USB and Ethernet. Audio in/out ports. HDMI source + sink with CEC. 8 Total Processor I/O, 40 Total FPGA I/O. Also a faster version for $299 (Zybo Z7-20).
Same as DE10-Standard, but not as many peripherals, buttons, LEDs, etc.
icoBoard ($100). (Buy it here.) The icoBoard plugs into a Raspberry Pi, so it's similar to having a SoC. The iCE40-HX8K chip comes with 7,680 LUTs (logic elements.) This means that after you learn the basics and create some simple circuits, you'll also have enough logic elements to run the VexRiscv soft-core CPU (the lightweight Murax SoC.) The icoBoard also supports a huge range of pluggable pmod accessories:
numato Mimas A7 ($149). An excellent development board with a Xilinx Artix 7 FPGA, so you can play with a bigger / faster FPGA and run a full RISC-V soft-core with all the options enabled, and a much higher clock speed. (The iCE40 FPGAs are a bit slow and small.)
I ordered a iCE40-HX8K Breakout Board to try out the IceStorm open source tooling. (I would have ordered an icoBoard if I had found it earlier.) I also bought a numato Mimas A7 so that I could experiment with the Artix 7 FPGA and Xilinx software (Vivado Design Suite.)
What can I do with an FPGA? / How many LUTs do I need?
VexRiscv is "A FPGA friendly 32 bit RISC-V CPU implementation." This is a RISC-V implementation written in SpinalHDL. VexRiscv has a lot of plugin and configuration options. The Murax SoC is a very light SoC that can run on an iCE40-HX8k (but probably not the 1k FPGA that only has 1,280 LUTs). The Briey SoC only runs on Xilinx or Altera FPGAs.
Why is getting into FPGA's such a crappy experience?
I'm a hobbyist and this is my first venture into FPGA's. I understand how FPGA works in theory. It's just a bunch of combinational logic connected by clock-connected flip-flops, whose topology and combinational functions can be programmed with a high level language. I bought a Xilinx board from embeddedmicro.com and I'm going to work through their tutorials. All I want to be able to do is specify a bunch of like registers and crap, and how to connect them with clocked flip-flops to do some really basic stuff like a simple CPU with 1-2 custom instructions or something. So why do I have to download a GIANT SIX GIGABYTE FILE TO DO THAT? What could this software possibly be doing that it needs to be that big? In a sane world, all I'd need is a board and a simple compiler which just takes the high-level language and turns it into the topology file to upload to the board. But in the insanity in which I am currently living, I have to download some gigantic IDE that is going to be huge and probably slower than mining bitcoins on an NES. I don't know because IT'S STILL DOWNLOADING. So to even get to the download, I had to log into the website, register, and give them a name and a physical address (and God forbid I should leave the "Company" field empty!). The Licensing crap on their website looks like you need an MBA to understand it. This company sells pieces of hardware, FFS! Why in Stallman's name can't they just make the software FOSS and let anyone download it instead of all this BS about WEBPACK this and annual upgrade that? Xilinx, in case you haven't noticed, in order for anyone to actually use your software, THEY HAVE TO BUY A CHIP OR BOARD AND YOU CAN MAKE MONEY OFF YOUR CUSTOMERS THAT WAY. CHARGING FOR SOFTWARE OR HAVING A BYZANTINE PROCESS FOR GETTING A FREE LICENSE MAKES ZERO SENSE FOR A HARDWARE COMPANY. Anyone know a place where you can just buy an FPGA board, plug it into a USB port, sudo apt-get install some FOSS compiler, type your Verilog or VHDL or whatever into emacs, run 2-5 commands and have a running design? If such a place doesn't exist, some startup needs to disrupt this industry. If you make it easy for people to develop for your HW, those devs will be inclined buy your product just to make their lives easier.
Background: My degree is in computer science. I've worked various jobs in IT related fields. I have programmed in a smattering of languages (C/Java/etc) and mostly worked at an application layer and up. In school I did take several computer hardware classes, and in one we built our own 16-bit MIPS CPU (with pipelining) in a circuit simulator that one of the professors had written himself in Java. We created our own DRAM cells, NAND/AND/XOetc gates, we created our own shifters and multiplexers, stuff like that. But again...in a Java GUI, not anything practical like verilog. End goal: I like performance. I like to tinker and make things go faster. I missed the bitcoin (and altcoin) FPGA rush by about 2-3 years. Currently, GPU mining is dominated by so-called 'ASIC resistant' algorithms which mostly resist ASICs by requiring a large amount of RAM (800MB-2GB, depending on algo) as part of the algorithm. Partly as a novelty for my personal use, and partly so that I have at least some level of knowledge of yet another IT field I can go into should I ever get laid off or sick of my current job, I want to learn how to program an FPGA for the purposes of implementing at least one of these ASIC-resistant algorithms. The energy savings over a GPU would be nice as well, as from what I can see most FPGAs are at least an order of magnitude, if not two, more efficient than a GPU. So, on to my questions:
Xilinx seems to be the number one 'newbie' FPGA maker (I say this because I see them mentioned more frequently than any other maker in threads foby newbies). Apparently I can download their software kit and use their simulator to design and test in software; I don't need the actual FPGA circuit/card until I am ready to put my design 'into production'. Am I correct in thinking this? Are there other manufacturers I should target instead?
Given my school experience designing circuits at something like a UML or CAD level, are there any recommended paths I should look into, or is learning VHDL/Verilog a pretty hard requirement to implementing any design? I'm asking because I'm ignorant.
Maybe best asked for later, but would the Xilinx simulator give me some idea of which FPGA I'd want to buy? Will it give me anything approaching an 'expected behavior' ('hey, it runs at 1h/s on your CPU, but on our Model XYZ it will run around 300-400 h/s!') Or will there be anything useful in helping me pick FPGAs? Because...I already looked, and holyfuckballs there are a shitload of FPGA models and makers and ohgod how do I pick from this literal shitstorm of models?!
Are high memory FPGAs a thing? I saw some stuff on Intel's website that indicated they had a (very expensive) FPGA that also had DDR4 slots built in. That would solve the memory issue. Do I actually need that though? Would it be the case that even a cheap (~$100) FPGA would end up having enough cells to implement 1GB of memory? I don't really care if I end up having a massive grid of registers, apart from the fact that, well, logic not used for computation is wasted energy and silicon space. But maybe 1GB of memory ends up being super tiny on an FPGA? Again, I understand how to build 1GB of memory in circuits, but not on an FPGA or in silicon.
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