Hobby or job? (FPGA User's groups anyone?)

I've been following this newsgroup off and on for the last couple of years and I notice a steadily increasing amount of traffic here. The volume seems to be approaching that for various open source language forums/newsgroups thta I also follow.

I'm curious: Any speculation as to the split between hobbyists and paid FPGA practicioners posting/lurking here?

It would seem that with the advent of cheap FPGA prototyping boards, devices and free/semi-free design tools that a lot of hobbyists are trying out FPGAs. After all, you can get into FPGA design now for about the same or less money than it takes to get into Lego Mindstorms - which is just amazing when you think about it.

Also, are there FPGA user's groups springing up out there? I'm thinking of starting one here in Portland, OR. Any interest?


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Phil Tomson
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I'd imagine most people here are employed, consultants, small business, occasional blue chip EEs etc beside the FPGA vendor reps. The traffic reflects the niggling details that make simple things harder than 1st seems and a little ragging on the vendors to boot. Not sure if open source is of that much interest here except to the entry level or for educational purposes.

The free semi free tools are a great way for vendors to rope in new paying customers perhaps a future woz or 2 will give them larger order, no OSS agenda here.

Since FPGAs are heading up into low end ASIC territory, not sure if hobbyists will become a major deal here, mostly serious hobyists are perhaps buddying engineers. It may seem as if FPGAs are a little reminiscant of the 70s computer clubs but I don't expect to see homebrew clubs popping up.


johnjakson at usa dot com

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As someone in the Porland area, as much as I love FPGA work I doubt I'd find much to "share" at a users' group.

I have seen what appears to be a larger base of less informed people posting here asking questions that appear they're 1) coming to FPGAs from a non-hardware background without assistance or 2) they don't have the first idea of the architectures they're targeting as if they don't know where to begin looking for backround information. A users' group might help those who don't have a clue but I'd hate to have a clue and not be able to get much from the meetings outside of invitations for beer.

What is a hobbyist but someone trying to do the job of a professional with roughly the same tools?

- John_H

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Well, I'm a hobbyist. It makes a change from coding software for a living, at least when I can fit it in :-)

The problems for hobbyists aren't really the vendors, or the tools, or even the large quantities of relatively domain-specific knowledge required. It's getting to grips with the teeny-weeny-pin soldering issues (at least it is for me). That's when you can get the parts in home-solderable form at all, eg: largest S3 is a PQ208. Whoosh. By the time you've added memory and a few peripherals, you're seriously out of pins :-( *And* it's a bitch to solder...

Yes, I know there are good reasons (trust me - this is me being understanding :-) You really don't want to hear me whining about something :-)) Question though - would pin-grid array have the same signal integrity issues as BGA ? Or is it a function of lead-length rather than pin geography ? At least PGAs are solderable...

I don't really expect A,X,whoever to produce parts that help the hobbyist, but it's immensely frustrating to get a quote of $350/board (inc. assembly/x-ray testing) when the part is "under 10$", well ok, $50 in my quantities...

It's actually cheaper to buy a development board for deployment (eg: AVNET virtex-4 FX-12 board) as well as development, which is a bit weird really!


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Well, there are some pretty good open source development tools out there like Icarus Verilog and GHDL (I've been using GHDL a lot lately with some pretty good results - it seems to be a very promising open source VHDL simulator). Mostly these are going to be frontend tools (like simulators) of course since most of the backend is proprietary.

I'm not so sure. I'm sort of in between being a hobbyist and a professional. I was involved in ASICs years ago and used some of the early Altera parts which would probably be categorized as CPLDs now. I moved on to EDA Software development and got away from the hardware end of things. Now I'm finding I want to tinker with FPGAs and since you can buy a Xilinx board for $99 that has a 200,000 equivilent gate part on it - well, that's pretty cool (the first ASIC I did back in the late 80's only had 2000 gates). I've also talked to a few people from the newsgroup here who are mainly hobbyists. Hardware 'hacking' sort of died there for a while when the barrier to entry was too high, but now it would seem to be making a comeback although the soldering irons and wirewrap boards are mostly gone replaced by simulators and synthesis tools like Xilinx's ISE Webpack.

There's also the popularity of O'Reilly's new Make magazine which is full of hardware projects.


Reply to
Phil Tomson

Well, you could be the seasoned professional offering nuggets of hardware engineering wisdom - a guru :)

The other thing that User's groups do is to help spread ideas, memes and idioms. I'm involved in a user's group for the Ruby programming language, for example, and most of us know Ruby pretty well, but it's great when someone comes in and does a presentation and I sit back and think "Wow, I didn't know you could do that!". It's also great when someone comes in with an idea for something to develop and we start trying it out right there in the meeting.

Well, much cheaper tools anyway ;-) I can't afford ModelSim, but I can download and compile Icarus or GHDL (both open source) for all of my HDL simulation needs. Are they as slick as ModelSim? No, but they're actually pretty capable and I get things done with them.


Reply to
Phil Tomson

this Simon.. is a professional :-)

but thoughts and ideas expressed by Simon may not be the same as all Simons.

Reply to
Simon Peacock

Nowadays people are soldering surface mount parts themselves in toaster ovens. I think you can even do BGA's this way.

Have you checked out the PCBexpress website? If not, have a look.

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They make circuit boards, but they also have a lot of information about hobbyist / low-volume production techniques.

Mind you, I haven't done any of this stuff myself, yet, but I would much rather cook a board in the oven than try to solder it, even if it doesn't have any BGA's on it. Of course, with BGA's, hand-soldering is not an option.


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Eh. I just log into work over the VPN link, and use Modelsim for my own projects. And Synplicity. And the full Xilinx tools. All from my laptop wirelessly from my couch. :)

Yes, you may throw things at me now.

Bosees don't mind as long as its after hours and the Suns are just sitting there counting out time.

Reply to
Quiet Desperation

Yep, and pad2pad (who are cheaper, in general). PCBExpress (or rather, screaming circuits, their partner) want ~$650 for 1 board I was thinking of (10 IC's, 1 BGA, a few through-hole components). Pad2pad were $350 for the same. It makes 'hobbyist' a bit expensive...

Like you, I've heard of it, but not actually done it. I intend to though. I've read some of the articles and I'll be purchasing one of these 'toaster' ovens (a strange term!) RSN(tm). I'm off to Vegas for a week (trade show) so it'll have to wait a bit longer...

The PQ208's aren't actually that bad - it takes a bit of practice, which is itself expensive! But once you've the knack, you can knock out a board in a few hours - and that includes the inspection with a magnifying glass to find the solder joins...

I have heard of people using vias to mate with the balls of the chip and soldering from below, filling the vias like little ink-wells. Sounds like a good way to destroy a chip to me :-)

ATB, Simon

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Well, I, for one, am a professional (EE) with a fairly strong background in hardware but not much experience with FPGAs. The "hobbiest" approach is the only viable way for me to get up-to-speed with some of their capabilities. My company is very cautious with spending on training (yes, I agree that they should but this is a government (DOE) affiliation so it's like screaming into a wind-storm!). The only way I can get any experience and prove to them it would be worthwhile in future projects is through things like the Xilinx Spartan 3 development board with the free Webpack and ModelSim. Total investment was about $100. Still within hobbiest ranges.

All the points brought up about soldering the BGAs is very much a high interest point for me, also. I've heard of the "toaster oven" approach but have not, as yet, tried it. I've used ExpressPCB for inexpensive printed circuit boards (3 boards (2.5" x 3.8" each), double-sided, plated through holes, no silkscreen, no soldermask for $60, delivered!) quite successfully. The schematic capture and PCB layout programs are provided free. The downside is the tools are not exportable to other tool sets. They have just recently added DXF output, though.

This sounds like a fairly viable, inexpensive/hobbiest method for generic experimentation.

Just my $0.02 worth...


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