A couple of days ago as I pen these words, I was chatting with Jake Janovetz, founder and President of Opal Kelly, and he was telling me some jolly exciting news. The folks at Opal Kelly specialize in producing powerful FPGA USB 2.0 modules for development engineering, prototyping, and OEM integration, and they've just announced the volume availability of their new XEM3050 module.
3D CAD representation of the XEM3050.
(Click this image to view a larger, more detailed version)
Before we plunge into the main part of this announcement, I'd just like to say that I think these modules are really an incredibly simple yet mega-cool idea. If you visit the Opal Kelly website (www.OpalKelly.com), you'll see that they have a wide variety of these modules (they also provide consulting services, but that's a story for another day).
Each module has different capabilities, but essentially what we have is a USB interface, an FPGA, some on-board memory, and lots of Input/Output (I/O) pins. (Note that the I/O pins are presented on a connector under the board). As Mike Phaneuf, the president of Fibics says:
The Opal Kelly product line is perfect for us. It has memory, USB, a powerful FPGA with lots of I/O, and not much else. This is a fundamental value of Opal Kelly modules – they have the minimum configuration to be incredibly flexible and useful, without the cost and complexity of unnecessary accessories.
You can use these Opal Kelly boards for so many things. As one simple example, suppose you want to develop a system that takes the output from a CMOS image sensor, pre-processes the images using some cunning algorithms, and then passes the resulting data to a host computer for more processing and/or storage and/or analysis and/or display.
What you want to do is to focus on your proprietary "stuff" that's your "value-add" – you don't want to waste months of effort dorking around re-inventing the wheel with regard to the USB interface and suchlike (and no, it's not as simple and just slapping a USB interface chip on your board, as many folks have discovered to their cost).
The solution is to use one of the Opal Kelly cards, which you attach as a daughter card to your main board (this is just one usage scenario). You can now stream data from your board into the Opal Kelly card, process and store the data using the FPGA and memory on the Opal Kelly card, and upload the processed data to your host computer via the USB interface. In the lower near-side corner of the image below, for example, we see one of Opal Kelly's XEM3010 cards attached to one of Fibics' Scan Generator Modules.
XEM3010 on a Scan Generator Module from Fibics.
(Click this image to view a larger, more detailed version)
I tell you, the folks who use these cards tend to be very, VERY impressed with them. For example, here's another quote from the president of Fibics:
It would have taken approximately one year for a single engineer to develop and debug, in-house, the functionality provided out-of-box by Opal Kelly. With the Opal Kelly modules, we can focus our engineering efforts on what makes us unique and adds value to our customers, not on ensuring we communicate reliably with the PC.
Now, I know that you can usually get your friends to say nice things about you (otherwise you really do have a problem). Having said this, I write quite a lot of customer case studies for different companies, and I also know that it's difficult to get someone to genuinely and enthusiastically endorse a product if they don't really believe in it. So, the fact that Opal Kelly's customers are so "gung ho" about this stuff says a lot to me. As another example, Martin Vasey, the CEO of Jova Solutions says:
For Jova Solutions to have created the functionality of the XEM module would have taken us from 9-to-12 months of engineering time, plus $30,000 in out-of-pocket expenses. And that's IF we could have found a specialized engineer with expertise in this area. I estimate the Opal Kelly module has saved us over $100,000 and accelerated the time-to-market for our commercial product by 12 months. It is an 'out-of-the-box' solution, allowing us to focus on designing our core product.
But we digress... back to today's XEM3050 announcement... Based on the 4,000,000-gate Xilinx Spartan-3 FPGA and high-transfer-rate USB 2.0, the XEM3050 features on-board SDRAM, Flash, SSRAM, integrated power supplies, abundant I/O, and is controlled by Opal Kelly's FrontPanel software and API. The XEM3050 is being used by early adopters at leading engineering firms and universities as the "heart" of electronic product design, prototyping, and simulation. It is eliminating months of engineering development time and expense, as well as dramatically accelerating time to market.
The XEM3050 is used for turnkey device-to-computer integration for "logic-heavy" applications such as image capture and signal processing, data acquisition, and digital communication. The XEM3050 module includes, at no extra charge, Opal Kelly's FrontPanel software for interfacing "virtual" instruments, HDL simulation models for multiple platforms, and its complete Application Programmer's Interface (API) for several languages.
Radix20 Design Services, an ASIC design and EDA consulting firm, is using the XEM3050 to develop a GPS receiver for Magellan Systems Japan that will be implemented as an ASIC in the final product. "With the XEM3050, we are able to run simulations faster than real time, dramatically reducing the time required for design verification. For a typical 20-minute GPS simulation, a mid-range commercial Verilog simulator would take 260 hours and an expensive, high-end Verilog simulator would take 40 hours. Using the XEM3050, we are able to do 20 minutes of verification in just 13 minutes," said Gil Herbeck, Chief Engineer of Radix20 Design Services.
Gil continues: "Opal Kelly has saved us months of design verification time, eliminated the need for several thousand dollars worth of Verilog simulation software, and allowed us to get our product to market six months faster. We are so happy with the performance and form factor of the XEM3050 that we are considering reworking our entire design verification system and demo unit to use this module."
The XEM3050 is the most powerful module in the range of Opal Kelly's FPGA USB 2.0 modules. Smaller than a credit card, the XEM3050 is packed with features, such as:
- 64-MB SDRAM using two completely independent 32-MB SDRAMs
- 8-Mb SPI Serial Flash for non-volatile storage with a separate Xilinx Platform Flash for FPGA configuration data
- 512k X 18 high-performance Synchronous SRAM
- Two high-efficiency switching power supplies to reduce design burden and generate clean, stable power to the FPGA
- Opal Kelly's FrontPanel software, which handles all the interaction between the customer's software and the customer's FPGA design
- Multi-platform API (available for Microsoft Windows XP/Vista, Mac OS X, and Linux FedoraCore 7, with a variety of languages including C, C++, C#, Ruby, Python and Java)
- DLL support for a variety of third-party tools including Matlab and LabVIEW
The XEM3050 is being used for a wide range of applications by early adopters in both the commercial and academic sectors including General Dynamics, National Semiconductor, Radix20 Design Services, Texas Instruments, and Advanced Communications Concepts. The XEM3050 is also used by researchers and teachers at leading universities including Johns Hopkins University, MIT, Stanford University, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
Availability and Pricing
Opal Kelly XEM3050 modules are available immediately, off-the-shelf, from the Opal Kelly Online Store. Prices range from: $749.95/ for quantity 1-9; $699.95/ for quantity 10-49; and $649.95/ for 50 or more modules.