How Open Source Is creating a Paradigm Shift in the FPGA World

By Tony McDowell, Director of Open Source at Rapid Silicon 

I am often asked why I believe open-source principles are so important to the FPGA market. When I started my career in the FPGA world, 15 or so years ago, the phrase “embedded system” had an aura of exclusivity to it. It was exclusive to RTL developers who were experienced in wrangling the implementation tools to get the results they wanted.

Then, Arduino boards were released. This was the first wave of embedded system democratization as it abstracted away all the low-level complexity.

Then came the second wave, which was the release of the Raspberry Pi, bringing embedded Linux to the mix. Anyone could write Linux applications to run on their Raspberry Pi. It didn’t matter that it was running in an embedded system. In parallel came the rise of AI/ML infrastructure, accelerated workloads, and rapid-development environments like Agile, CI/CD, no-code development and microservices.

What is the key to all of this? It’s open source. All of these paradigm shifts hinged on the shared community that allowed designs to be developed quickly and openly.

Now, back in the FPGA world, the traditional big silicon and EDA vendors all have tools that do basically the same thing, but they all have their own proprietary way of implementing them. It can be difficult (or even impossible), to understand exactly how to debug issues with those tools. Users are also beholden to those vendors to fix bugs in a timely manner. Furthermore, users of mature devices needing fixes or new features must reimplement their design in newer versions of the tools or change devices entirely.

At Rapid Silicon, we are crafting our core EDA workflow around open-source community-driven tools such as Yosys, VPR, ABC, and OpenFPGA. Our users can see the source code of the tools they’re using. This makes it easier to understand how the tools work. If a user wants to help out, they can provide patches for the open-source community that will help everyone else. If someone wants to build an easy-to-use ecosystem like Arduino or Raspberry Pi around our tools and devices, they can.

It’s a clear win for users, and a win for Rapid Silicon where we can focus on optimizing the tools to provide the best performance and user experience possible.

We’re committed to democratizing FPGAs, and we demonstrate that commitment in everything we do. We’ve also joined the CHIPS Alliance and are eager to provide support and collaborate with our peers in the wider community to make our tools better not only for our own users but for everyone.