Fomu: a beginner’s guide

FPGAs are pretty cool pieces of hardware for tinkering with, and have become remarkably easy to approach as a hobbyist in recent years. Boards like the TinyFPGA BX don’t require any special hardware to use and can provide a simple platform for modestly-scoped projects or just for learning.

While historically the software tools for programming FPGAs are proprietary and provided by the hardware manufacturer, Symbiflow (enabled and probably inspired by earlier work like Project IceStorm) provides completely free and open-source tooling and documentation for programming some FPGAs, significantly lowering the cost of entry (most vendors provide some free version of their design software but limited to lower-end devices; a license for the non-free version of the software is well into the realm of “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it”) and appearing to yield better results in many cases.1

As somebody who finds it fun to learn new things and experiment with new kinds of creations, FPGAs are quite interesting to me- they’re quite complex devices that enable very powerful creations, with excellent depth for mastery. While I did some course lab work with Altera FPGAs in university (and a little bit of chip design/layout later), I’d call those mostly canned tasks with easily-understood requirements and problem-solving approaches; it was sufficient to familiarize myself with the systems, but not enough to be particularly useful.

The announcement of Fomu caught my interest because I was aware of the earlier Tomu but wasn’t sufficiently interested to try to acquire any hardware. With Fomu however, I’m rather more interested because it enables interesting capabilities for playing with hardware- others have already demonstrated small RISC-V CPUs running in that FPGA (despite its modest logic capacity), for instance.

Even more conveniently for being able to play with Fomu, I’ve been in contact with Mithro who is approximately half of the team behind Fomu and gotten access to a stockpile of “hacker edition” boards that have been hand-assembled but not programmed at all. With slightly early access to hardware, I’ve been able to do some exploration and re-familiarize myself with the world of digital logic design and figure out the hardware.

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