CAT Board

The CAT Board is part of a Raspberry Pi-based hand-held FPGA programming system.

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The CAT Board is an OSHW Raspberry Pi HAT with a Lattice iCE40HX FPGA. It's meant to be programmed using the OSS myhdl, yosys, arachne-pnr, IceStorm tools right on the RPi.

* Lattice iCE40-HX8K FPGA in 256-pin BGA.
* 32 MByte SDRAM (16M x 16).
* Serial configuration flash (at least 2 Mbit).
* Three Grove connectors.
* Two PMOD connectors.
* One 20x2 header with 3.3V, ground and 18 FPGA I/Os.
* Two SATA headers (for differential signals; don't know if they would work with SATA HDDs.)
* DIP switch with four SPST switches.
* Two momentary pushbuttons.
* Four LEDs.
* 100 MHz oscillator.
* 5.0 V jack for external power supply.
* 3.3 V and 1.2 V regulators.
* Adjustable voltage on one bank of FPGA I/O pins.
* 32 KByte HAT EEPROM.
* 40-pin RPi GPIO header.

  • It Just Keeps Getting Easier!

    Dave Vandenbout09/25/2016 at 13:10 0 comments

    I learned about a new FOSS project a few weeks ago: apio. It's stated mission is:

    Experimental open source micro-ecosystem for open FPGAs. Based on platformio. Apio is a multiplatform toolbox, with static pre-built packages, project configuration tools and easy commands to verify, synthesize, simulate and upload your verilog designs.

    That sounded pretty good to me. It was easy to install on my RPi3:

    pip install apio
    That just installs the apio "shell". In order to get all the synthesis, simulation, and board tools, I used the command:

    apio install --all

    That automatically downloads and installs some system utilities, the Icestorm FPGA toolchain, the iverilog simulator, and some design examples for several types of iCE40 FPGA boards. Once that was completed, I could check to see what boards were supported:

    pi@raspberrypi:~ $ apio boards --list
    Supported boards:
    Board         FPGA                 Type  Size  Pack
    icoboard      iCE40-HX8K-CT256     hx    8k    ct256
    icezum        iCE40-HX1K-TQ144     hx    1k    tq144
    icestick      iCE40-HX1K-TQ144     hx    1k    tq144
    go-board      iCE40-HX1K-VQ100     hx    1k    vq100
    iCE40-HX8K    iCE40-HX8K-CT256     hx    8k    ct256
    Use `apio init --board <boardname>` for creating a new apio proyect for that board
    What!?!? No CAT Board in the list!?! I needed to fix that situation. I poked around in the apio Python code and found a likely file at apio/resources/boards.json. Inside that file, I pretty much copied the existing entry for the icoboard with a few modifications:
      "Cat-board": {
        "fpga": "iCE40-HX8K-CT256",
        "prog": "litterbox",
        "check": {
          "arch": "linux_armv7l"
    The only thing I changed (besides the board identifier) was the "prog" entry to list the litterbox utility that uploads bitstreams from the RPi3 to the FPGA on the CAT Board.

    I also had to modify the following section of the SConstruct file in the same directory:

    # -- Upload the bitstream into FPGA
    upload_cmd = ''
    if PROG == 'ftdi':
        upload_cmd = 'iceprog{0} -d i:0x0403:0x6010:{1} $SOURCE'.format(
            EXT, DEVICE)
    elif PROG == 'gpio':
        # Icoboard + RPI2: sram
        upload_cmd = 'export WIRINGPI_GPIOMEM=1; icoprog -p < $SOURCE'
    elif PROG == 'litterbox':
        # Cat Board + RPI2,3
        upload_cmd = 'sudo litterbox -c $SOURCE'

    This just adds the command for uploading a bitstream using the litterbox utility.

    Finally, after a little more poking around, I found the apio/managers/ file and added the following code to its upload function:

            # -- Litterbox
            elif programmer == 'litterbox':
                # Cat Board + RPI2,3
                # Device argument is ignored
                if device and device != -1:
                        'Info: ignore device argument {0}'.format(device),
                # Check architecture
                arch = self.resources.boards[board]['check']['arch']
                current_arch = util.get_systype()
                if arch != current_arch:
                    # Incorrect architecture
                        'Error: incorrect architecture: RPI2 or RPI3 required',
                    return 1

    This does a sanity check to make sure the upload process for the CAT Board is occurring on an RPi2 or RPi3.

    Now when I regenerate the board list, I can see the CAT Board:

    pi@raspberrypi:~ $ apio boards --list
    Supported boards:
    Board         FPGA                 Type  Size  Pack
    icoboard      iCE40-HX8K-CT256     hx    8k    ct256
    icezum        iCE40-HX1K-TQ144     hx    1k    tq144
    Cat-board     iCE40-HX8K-CT256     hx    8k    ct256
    icestick      iCE40-HX1K-TQ144     hx    1k    tq144
    go-board      iCE40-HX1K-VQ100     hx    1k    vq100
    iCE40-HX8K    iCE40-HX8K-CT256     hx    8k    ct256
    Use `apio init --board <boardname>` for creating a new apio proyect for that board

    Once my modifications were complete, I went into the directory for the LED blinker and used the following command to indicate that this design was intended for the CAT Board:

    apio init --board Cat-board

    This creates an apio.ini file with a single line of text indicating the board...

    Read more »

  • That Was Fast!

    Dave Vandenbout09/01/2016 at 16:38 3 comments

    I've been away from this project for a few months (OK, four months) building things like a new tool for designing electronics. One of the things I haven't discussed here is the time it takes to download a bitstream to the FPGA on the CAT Board.

    As shown in previous logs, the FPGA is configured through one of the hardware SPI ports of the RPi. I've never considered SPI a very fast way of transferring data, so I initially set the port bit rate at 1 Mbps. That was good enough to get the FPGA going within a couple of seconds and there was no reason to push it and possibly cause errors while I debugged the board.

    But once the board was working reliably, I revisited the SPI bit-rate setting. I figured there was no harm in upping it to 5 Mbps just to see what happens. I went into the script and changed it to:

    self.spi.speed = 5000000
    Then I ran the command to load the FPGA with the bitstream for the LED blinker:
    sudo litterbox -c blinky.bin

    The download to the FPGA completed more quickly than before and the LED started blinking. Success!

    Then I started pushing for more: 10 Mbps, 20 Mbps, 50 Mbps, no problem; 100 Mbps, 150 Mbps, still five-by-five; 200 Mbps, complete and utter failure.

    OK, I hadn't expected to get even close to 200 Mbps. With a little trial and error, I finally found the maximum speed I could use was 199,999,999 bps. The reason for that becomes clear later.

    Now, was I actually transferring bits at 200 Mbps, or was the software making a promise that the hardware couldn't keep? To test that, I wrote some code to time the transmission of a 10 MByte payload and compute the effective bit-rate while I also observed the maximum SPI clock frequency and duty cycle with an oscilloscope:

    spi.speed (Mbps)Actual Speed (Mbps)Fmax (MHz)Duty Cycle (%)

    As can be seen, the actual transmission speeds are quite a bit lower than the speed setting. The reason for that is the overhead in the python-spi module that copies and converts the individual 4096-byte packets of the payload before sending them to the SPI driver. Even though each packet gets transmitted at a high clock speed, there's a significant "dead time" (2.3 ms) while the software readies the next packet. As the raw speed increases, the packet transmission time decreases and the dead time (which stays constant) consumes a larger percentage of the time to send the full payload. That's why the duty cycle decreases as the speed setting increases.

    To decrease the overhead, I modified the python-spi code as follows:

    • The data payload is checked and no conversion or copying is done if it is already in the form of a string of bytes.
    • The address of the current packet within the payload is sent to the SPI device driver rather than making a copy of the packet.

    After these two changes, setting spi.speed to 100 Mbps resulted in an actual transmission speed of 65 Mbps (an increase of 540%).

    There's no reason to set the spi.speed to a value greater than 100 Mbps. The table indicates the RPi is generating the SPI clock by dividing a master 200 MHz clock by an integer. Any setting between 100 and 199 Mbps will result in an SPI clock of 100 MHz, and going to 200 Mbps has already proven too fast for sending an FPGA configuration bitstream. (The iCE40HX datasheet also shows the SPI clock in slave mode should not exceed 25 MHz, so getting to 100 MHz is really pushing it already.)

    A transfer rate of 65 Mbps opens up some interesting possibilities. That means there is an 8 MByte/second channel between the CAT Board FPGA and the RPi that uses only a few pins of the GPIO connector. I have some Xilinx-centric VHDL modules and a Python library that provide a printf-like debug interface for FPGA designs through the JTAG port. I can modify these to use the SPI port so the CAT Board + RPi will have the same capabilities. I'll be working on that next. I think. Maybe.

  • Getting to Blinky, MyHDL Style!

    Dave Vandenbout05/09/2016 at 23:34 2 comments

    In my previous post, I showed how to blink an LED on the CAT Board using Verilog. Now I'll do the same thing using MyHDL, a hardware description language based on Python.

    I'll assume a starting point of a Raspberry Pi running the Raspbian OS with the yosys, arachne-pnr and icestorm FPGA tools installed. If you're following along and haven't already got that, read the previous post. The stuff I describe here won't work without it.

    Install MyHDL

    Before you can use MyHDL, you have to install it. Installing the latest release is as simple as:

    sudo pip install myhdl

    But I like to use the development version because that's where all the new features are. That's installed like this:

    cd /opt
    sudo git clone
    cd myhdl
    sudo python install

    Blinky in MyHDL

    Blinking an LED with Verilog wasn't hard, and doing it in MyHDL isn't either. Here's the source code that's stored in a Python file called

    from myhdl import *
    # Define the Blinky module.
    def blinky(clk_i, led_o):
        cnt = Signal(intbv(0, 0, 50000000)) # Counter from 0 to 49999999.
        tgl = Signal(bool(0)) # Toggle flag drives the LED.
        # Sequential block triggered on every rising edge of the clock.
        @always_seq(clk_i.posedge, reset=None)
        def toggle_led():
            if cnt == cnt.max-1: # When the counter reaches its max value...
       = ~tgl  # Toggle the flag...
       = tgl # Output the flag to the LED...
       = 0     # Reset the counter.
            else: # Counter hasn't reached max so just keep incrementing.
       = cnt + 1
        # Return a reference to the Blinky logic.
        return toggle_led
    # Define the connections to Blinky.
    clk_i = Signal(bool(0))
    led_o = Signal(bool(0))
    # Create an instantiation of Blinky.
    top = blinky(clk_i, led_o)
    # Output Verilog code for Blinky.

    Compiling to Blinky

    The file containing the MyHDL code shown above is executed as follows:


    This translates the MyHDL code into Verilog that's stored in the blinky.v file. Then this Verilog file can be compiled into a bitstream using the yosys, arachne-pnr and icepack tools just like in the previous post. Once the bitstream is downloaded to the CAT Board, the LED will blink.

    Raison de'Etre

    Why bother doing this in MyHDL? It just adds another step, but does it add any value?

    In this case, no, it doesn't. Because this design is so simple, the MyHDL code isn't any more compact or expressive than the original Verilog. The value of MyHDL is experienced when doing design exploration, i.e. trying various approaches to solving a problem. Then all the features of the Python ecosystem can be used with MyHDL to come up with a solution. I showed a few examples of this here and here.

  • Getting to Blinky, CAT Board Style!

    Dave Vandenbout05/02/2016 at 03:51 5 comments

      A fundamental rite of passage is getting your embedded system to blink an LED. In this post, I'll show you how to take a Raspberry Pi 3 fresh out of the box and get an LED blinking on the CAT Board.

      (If you're already experienced with the RPi, then a lot of this post will be redundant for you. However, I've found it useful to document processes so I can repeat them reliably at a later date when the details have grown fuzzy.)

      Install the OS

      The first thing to do is install an operating system (OS) on the RPi:

      1. Get the Raspbian OS for the RPi and unzip it on the PC.
      2. To write the OS image to the SD card, get the Win32DiskImager and install it on the PC.
      3. Use the Win32DiskImager to write the Raspbian OS to an SD card inserted in the PC. (This will take a while.)

      SSH Over Ethernet

      I'm going to use the RPi by connecting to it over a network SSH connection from my PC:

      1. Look in Network Connections to find the IP address of an Ethernet port the RPi can attach to.
      2. Go into the SD card and make a copy of the cmdline.txt file. Then rename the copy cmdline.normal. (This saves a copy of the original configuration in case I want to go back to it later.)
      3. Edit the cmdline.txt file to assign an IP address to the RPi that's identical to the one for the Ethernet port except for the last field. In my case, I selected and appended it to the first (and only) line in the file to get:
      4. Save the cmdline.txt file and eject the SD card from the PC.
      5. Insert the SD card into the RPi.
      6. Connect the RPi to the PC's Ethernet port with a cable.
      7. Apply power to the RPi and let it boot up.
      8. To talk to the RPi using SSH from the PC, get PuTTY and install it.
      9. Run PuTTY and SSH into the RPi at address
      10. Login to the RPi using the account "pi" and the password "raspberry".

      SSH Over the Wireless Network

      You can do everything over the wired Ethernet, but I prefer the convenience of using my local wireless network.

      1. To allow the RPi to access the local wireless network, open the /etc/wpa_supplicant/wpa_supplicant.conf file and append the following lines:
      2. Reboot the RPi and then look for the wireless connection using something like Advanced IP Scanner:
      3. Now disconnect the Ethernet cable and use PuTTY to SSH into the RPi over the wireless network using the IP address found in the last step (

      Enable File Sharing

      Sharing files between my PC and the RPi lets me use a familiar editor to write source that can then be dropped onto the RPi.

      1. To share files between the RPi and the PC, install Samba on the RPi like so:
        $ sudo apt-get update
        $ sudo apt-get install samba
        $ sudo apt-get install samba-common-bin
      2. Edit the /etc/samba/smb.conf file and add the following at the bottom:
      3. [pi]
        writeable = yes
        browseable = yes
        only guest = no
        create mask = 0777
        directory mask = 0777
        public = yes
        Also, change the name of the workgroup to whatever is being used for the Windows PC:
        workgroup = XESS
      4. Start the Samba server running on the RPi:
      5. sudo service smbd start
      6. Open the Network window on the PC. The RPi should be visible there:
      7. Double-click the RASPBERRYPI icon and the shared directory will appear. Files can be transferred between the PC and RPi there:

      Reconfigure the RPi

      Before the RPi can be used to program the CAT Board FPGA, a few of its configuration settings need to be adjusted:

      1. On the RPi, type the command:
        sudo raspi-config
      2. In the initial screen that appears, select option 1 for expanding the linux partition. (The stock Raspbian OS image creates a 4GB partition. This won't be enough to compile the FPGA tools. Believe me, I tried.)As an alternative, you can also use the command-line version to do the same thing:
        sudo raspi-config --expand-rootfs
      3. Communicating with the CAT Board also requires the use of the RPi's hardware SPI port. That is enabled using the following screens:

      4. Finally, close raspi-config and reboot the RPi to let the changes take effect.

      Install the FPGA Software Tools

      There are five software...

    Read more »

  • CAT Board: All On It's Own

    Dave Vandenbout04/27/2016 at 02:51 2 comments

      One of the reasons for respinning the CAT Board PCB was to get the SPI flash chip connected correctly to the Lattice FPGA. The flash+FPGA+Raspberry Pi interconnection is complicated because it has to operate in three different modes:

      1. During development or when the FPGA is being used dynamically, the RPi has to be able to load a configuration bitstream into the FPGA.
      2. After development is completed, the RPi may want to store the finished FPGA bitstream into the flash.
      3. When the CAT Board is used stand-alone or when the FPGA performs some fixed function for the RPi, the FPGA has to be able to configure itself upon powerup with the bitstream stored in the flash.

      All three modes have to share a single SPI bus between all the devices while using a minimum of RPi GPIO signals and extra circuitry.

      Mode 3 is the easiest: when the FPGA powers up (or is reset), it checks to see if the SPI CS line is pulled high and, if so, becomes an SPI master and reads its configuration bitstream from the flash. The RPi GPIO signals are hidden behind the series resistors and can't interfere.

      Mode 2 is slightly more difficult. When the RPi is storing a bitstream by sending it to the flash chip's SI input, the SPI CS line is pulled low. But that also enables the SPI interface of the FPGA which could lead to interference if the FPGA's SDO output becomes active. To prevent this, the RPi asserts the reset pin of the FPGA so its SPI port can't turn on. Problem solved.

      Mode 1 is the most difficult. The RPi pulls the SPI CS line low as it removes the reset from the FPGA. This places the FPGA in slave mode so the RPi can send a bitstream to the FPGA's SPI port. But this also enables the flash chip's SPI port, which means the flash's SO output could interfere with the bitstream data. Unfortunately, there's no reset pin on the flash to keep it quiet. However, the flash does have a deep power-down mode that is entered by sending a specific command to the flash. Once in this state, it will not respond to anything until it receives another specific command to wake up. The RPi can then transfer the bitstream to the FPGA. During the transfer, there's no chance the wake-up command will be sent accidentally to the flash's SI input because 1) neither the RPi or FPGA will be driving that signal line during the configuration process, and 2) the flash only executes a command once its CS input goes high but the SPI CS line is held low for the entire duration of the bitstream transfer. So the flash will stay quiet and the RPi can send the bitstream to the FPGA in peace.

      Another complication of the shared SPI bus is that the roles of the RPi's MOSI and MISO pins are reversed in modes 1 and 2. In mode 1, the RPI's MOSI output pin drives the SDI input of the FPGA and the FPGA's SDO output drives the RPI's MISO input. That allows the hardware SPI port of the RPi to be used for the SPI transactions. But in mode 2, the RPi's MOSI pin acts as an input to receive data from the flash's SO output and the RPI's MISO pin has to drive the SI input pin of the flash. That precludes the use of the RPI's SPI hardware and the SPI transfers to/from the flash have to be done using bit banging.

      I searched for a ready-made SPI bit-banger program but nothing great popped up. So I just wrote one in Python using the RPi.GPIO library. It consists of a class for handling individual pin I/O, another class for SPI transactions, and a final class that handles most of the commands for the serial flash chip.

      To test the code, I first tried the command to read the device ID from the flash. The manufacturer and device IDs should have been 0x1F and 0x8401, respectively. Instead, I got 0xFF and 0xFFFF. That's OK; nothing ever works the first time.

      I probed with an oscilloscope to make sure the RPi was driving the correct pins of the flash. No problem there except that the SO pin was always high (naturally).

      Next, I pulled out my old HP LogicDart and sampled the waveforms on the CS, SCK and SI pins. Once again, no problems:...

    Read more »

  • Version 0.2 Is Live!

    Dave Vandenbout04/16/2016 at 15:17 1 comment

      Well, this doesn't happen often: I assembled the new 0.2 CAT Board and it worked the first time! The Raspberry Pi was able to program it with the SDRAM diagnostic and it passed (showing four green LEDs).

      The next steps are:

      1. Write the RPi code for programming the bitstream into the SPI flash so I can test the configuration of the FPGA in stand-alone mode.
      2. Assemble the SATA I/O. (I checked that the SATA connectors fit their new PCB footprints, but I still need to get the correct termination resistors.)

  • Comparison of CAT 0.1 and 0.2 PCBs

    Dave Vandenbout04/14/2016 at 15:17 8 comments

    Before assembling a CAT Board with the new 0.2 PCBs from PCBCart, I thought I'd compare them to the previous 0.1 version from PCBWay.

    At a macro-level, they both look like circuit boards. No discernible difference. So that's good.

    Looking a little more closely, the PCBCart silkscreen is better defined than the one by PCBWay which suffers from some "blooming". But that also makes the part references on the PCBCart PCB look a bit spidery so it's probably a good idea to thicken the text a bit for those.

    Now let's look at drill/via alignment. The vast majority of the small 20-mil vias had drill holes punched completely within the copper pad. But there were a few vias in each set of boards that had "breakouts" like those shown below. Thankfully, there were no cases where the drill missed the via completely in either set. For this metric, the PCBWay boards were slightly superior to those from PCBCart but there were no outright failures in either.

    The above image also shows the alignment of the soldermask with the BGA pads. Bad alignment can lead to BGA balls not connecting to the pad or having a ball short to a nearby, uncovered via pad. Neither of those is a good thing. The PCBWay boards have a bit more misalignment than those from PCBCart, but not as much overall as the image above would make you believe. Still, for this metric PCBCart has a slight edge.

    Another factor to consider is via size. PCBWay can drill holes as small as 8 mils but they require a 6 mil annular pad so the total via diameter is 6 + 8 + 6 = 20 mils. PCBCart drills a larger 10 mil hole but they only need a 4 mil annular pad for a total via size of 18 mils. When you're putting vias between the pads of an 0.8mm BGA and then trying to squeeze traces between them, that extra 2-mil clearance is a big advantage. Of course, the smaller pad size will also lead to more of the drill breakouts we saw above.

    Regarding price, I got 11 PCBs from PCBWay for $185 and 10 PCBs from PCBCart for $166. So the per-board price is about the same. But this changes all the time, so always check before submitting a board.

    Now I'm on to building some CAT Boards using the new PCBCart PCBs. That will be the true test.

  • Back From Vacation (My PCBs, That Is)

    Dave Vandenbout04/14/2016 at 11:56 0 comments

    My wayward PCBs that were erroneously shipped to New Caledonia have arrived! PCBCart arranged to have them shipped to me in NC for no charge (to me; I'm not sure what it cost them). That was nice of them, since they were under no obligation to do that. So +1 for customer service!

  • What goes to New Caledonia, stays in New Caledonia...

    Dave Vandenbout04/04/2016 at 15:48 2 comments

    I finished testing the major systems of the CAT Board about four weeks ago. Based on what I found, I made the following changes:

    • Straightened out the MISO/MOSI mess between the FPGA, serial configuration flash, and the Raspberry Pi. Now the FPGA should be programmable from either the RPi (during development) or the flash (for dedicated applications).
    • Added series resistors between the RPi SPI pins and the FPGA/flash chips to prevent any possible contention while still letting the RPi get control of the FPGA.
    • Fixed the footprint for the SATA connectors which I first created in 2004 with Eagle and either didn't get right or it changed since then. (Of course, this required some adjustments to the layout since the new footprint is wider and the two connectors were already very close together.)
    • Rerouted the SATA I/O lines from the FPGA in order to get 100-ohm differential impedances.
    • Simplified the way the voltage is programmed for the adjustable VCCIO_3 bank of FPGA I/Os. (Now it's done just by changing a single resistor instead of using solder-bridge jumpers.)

    I regenerated the gerber files and went looking for someone to fabricate them. I previously used PCBWay and they did a good job for $180, but 3 of the 11 boards they sent had enough soldermask misalignment to make me leery of using them. I had also considered PCBCart, but at the time their prices were considerably higher (around $230, as I recall). But when I went back and requoted them again, the cost had dropped to $167.

    So I submitted the gerbers to PCBCart's online ordering system and waited. They fabricated the PCB in a week and shipped it ... to New Caledonia! Now you may not know where New Caledonia is (I know I didn't), but it's best described as "the ass-end of nowhere": hundreds of miles off the east coast of Australia in the middle of the South Pacific. The only way to get farther from North Carolina in the USA would be to ship to Samoa (which, I guess, makes that "the colon-end of nowhere".)

    This screwup was caused by some interaction between the automatic address fill-in feature of Google Chrome and the PCBCart web forms, and by me not checking the PCBCart status emails closely. PCBCart got my billing address mostly correct, but the shipping address was completely whacked and I never noticed.

    So my CAT Board PCBs currently sit in New Caledonia, enjoying the onset of Fall in the Southern Hemisphere. DHL will tranship them from there to me for $163. What I'm hoping is that the shipment will be undeliverable and DHL will return it to PCBCart who can then send it to me for less than that.

    We'll see.

  • CAT Board SDRAM Test

    Dave Vandenbout02/25/2016 at 19:02 1 comment

      It's been a while. I got the SDRAM on the CAT Board working a few weeks back, so I'll use this post to document that.

      I've been using SDRAMs with FPGAs since 2001. Back then, I created an SDRAM controller module in VHDL that manages all the SDRAM timing, bank and row activation, address multiplexing and refreshing while presenting an interface that looks like a static RAM to the rest of the FPGA.

      To test an SDRAM, I attach the controller to a finite state machine (FSM) that sequences through a two-phase process:

      1. Write the entire SDRAM with a pseudo-random sequence from a random number generator (RNG).
      2. Reinitialize the RNG with the same seed and then compare its output to the values read from the SDRAM. If the outputs from the RNG and SDRAM match over the entire address range, then the test is passed.

      Since I've switched to using MyHDL for the CAT Board, I needed to convert the SDRAM controller. That's a big job. Luckily, I mentored a student for the 2015 Google Summer of Code (GSOC) and he translated the controller to MyHDL. He also provided a simulation model of the SDRAM chip.

      Converting my RNG into MyHDL should have been a much simpler task. At least, it would have been if I was the kind of guy that didn't go to extremes. As it was, I created a Jupyter notebook that simulates several versions of RNGs with MyHDL and visualizes the probability distributions they output. All that to end up with a standard LFSR-based RNG.

      I combined the MyHDL modules for the SDRAM, SDRAM controller, RNG and FSM and simulated the entire test process. The simulation found a small bug in the SDRAM controller that was the cause of a failure in one of the GSOC tests during the summer. (So *that's* what caused it!)

      Once the simulation was working, I tried to map it to the FPGA on the CAT Board. Unfortunately, the SDRAM controller describes its I/O using interfaces instead of lists of signals. Interfaces are a (relatively) new MyHDL feature that simplifies the interconnection of modules and reduce errors (that's good!), but using them with pin assignments is undocumented (that's bad!). So I had no way to assign the individual I/O signals to the FPGA pins connected to the SDRAM on the CAT Board.

      I finally resorted to exporting a Verilog version of my design using the MyHDL conversion routines. Using the port definitions in the converted Verilog code, I made the appropriate pin assignments for the CAT Board within Lattice's iCEcube2 software. Then I compiled the Verilog using the iCE40HX8K FPGA as the target device. I took the bitstream generated by iCEcube2 and transferred it to my Raspberry Pi.

      From there, it was just a matter of having the RPi download the bitstream to the FPGA on the CAT Board and running the SDRAM test. Here's what happened:

      So the SDRAM works! That was actually a little easier than any of my previous tests.

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Enjoy this project?



Jason Wong wrote 07/14/2016 at 17:41 point

Do you have an update on whether you will be selling these and pricepoint?

  Are you sure? yes | no

Dave Vandenbout wrote 07/15/2016 at 02:05 point

No, I really don't have any plans for selling this. Lattice sells $22 iCE40 boards and Olimex has one for $25. Even though these use a small HX1K FPGA, they kind of set the price point of what people are expecting. Earlier this year, I calculated the part cost of the CAT Board with an HX8K at $17. Even if I could sell it at $50, I'd make almost nothing and still not many people would buy it.

It's open source, though, so feel free to build your own.

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Mike Bloom wrote 06/02/2016 at 15:59 point

Hi Dave, very cool project.  I have actually been working on similar project off and on for a while with a Xilinx FPGA.  Glad to see that I am not the only one who had the idea of pairing the pi with FPGA.  I haven't posted anything yet but I might in the future.

Just a quick note based on an earlier comment where you mention the SPI as being slow.  I'm using this library ( to control the SPI interface.  My very rough calculations put the transfer rate at about 3 Mbit/s when I'm loading my bit file, and it can probably be pushed a bit faster.  I can share some code if you're interested.

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Dave Vandenbout wrote 06/03/2016 at 17:40 point

Hi, Mike. Thanks for the reply. I actually sell the StickIt!-MB ( that mates one of my XuLA Xilinx FPGA boards to an RPi. The only problem with that is I can't run the Xilinx programming tools on the RPi. Have you been able to do that?

In regards to the slow SPI, that's a problem only when I program the flash by bit-banging to arbitrary GPIO pins using Python. When I use the actual hardware SPI of the BCM2835 to program the FPGA directly, it's incredibly fast. I looked at the library you mentioned and it appears to only provide an interface to the hardware SPI port. Is the library also able to bit-bang to any set of GPIO pins?

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Danny Bokma wrote 04/29/2016 at 20:03 point

Damn nice project! Funny name, just happen to have finished a etherCAT project :P (8 layer pcb from -> 5 boards 150 euro without stelcil ).

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Brosnan Yuen wrote 02/08/2016 at 20:38 point


Very cool board. I wish I could do PCB design as well you can and also BGA soldering.

Is there a reason you used a hot air gun instead of reflow oven?



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Dave Vandenbout wrote 02/09/2016 at 00:38 point

Hi, Brosnan.

I used a hot air gun (actually, it's a paint remover) because that's what I have.

A few years ago, I made a video about how to solder BGAs. It's not that hard to do. 

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Dave Vandenbout wrote 01/25/2016 at 14:40 point

Hi, Sami. The CAT Board isn't available for sale at this time. I'm still considering whether that would be worthwhile.

The main limitation of the CAT Board is the slow interface to the RPi through the GPIO connector.

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Sami wrote 01/16/2016 at 10:38 point


I would like to get and test one of your CAT FPGA board for Raspberry Pi 2 B. How can I order one from you?  

Have you found any limitations in your CAT board?

Best regards,


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