FPGA + USB 3.0: Cypress EZ-USB FX3 or XillyUSB?

This post was written by eli on November 25, 2020
Posted Under: FPGA,GTX,USB


As the title implies, this post compares two solutions for connecting an FPGA to a host via USB 3.0: Cypress’ FX3 chipset, which has been around since around 2010, and the XillyUSB IP core, which was released in November 2020.

Cypress has been acquired by Infineon, but I’ll stick with Cypress. It’s not clear if the products are going to be re-branded (like Intel did with Altera, for example).

Since I’m openly biased towards XillyUSB, let’s be fair enough and start with its disadvantages. The first and obvious one is how long it’s been around compared with the FX3. Another thing is that XillyUSB won’t fall back to USB 2.0 if a USB 3.0 link fails to establish. This fallback option is important in particular because computer’s USB 3.x ports are sometimes of low quality, so even though the user expected to benefit from USB 3.x speed, the possibility to plug the device into a non-USB 3.x port can save the day.

This is however relevant only for applications that are still useful with USB 2.0, e.g. hard disk, USB sticks and Ethernet adapters — these still work, but do benefit from a faster connection when possible. If the application inherently needs payload speeds above 25 MBytes/s, it’s USB 3.0 or perish.

Thirdly, XillyUSB requires an FPGA with an MGT supporting 5 Gb/s. Low-cost FPGAs don’t. But from a BOM cost point of view, odds are that upgrading the FPGA costs less than adding the FX3 device along with its supporting components.

Finally, a not completely related comment: USB is good for hotpluggable, temporary connections. If a fixed link is required between an FPGA and some kind of computer, PCIe is most likely a better choice, possibly using Xillybus’ IP core for PCIe. Compared with USB 2.0, it might sound like a scary option, and PCIe isn’t always supported by embedded devices. But if USB 3.x is an option, odds are that PCIe is too. And a better one, unless hotplugging is a must.

FX3: Another device, another processor, another API and SDK

XillyUSB is an IP core, and hence resides side-by-side with the application logic on the FPGA. It requires a small number of pins for its functionality: Two differential wire pairs to the USB connector, and an additional pair of wires to a low-jitter reference clock. A few GPIO LEDs are recommended for status indications, but are not mandatory. The chances for mistakes in the PCB design are therefore relatively slim.

By contrast, using the FX3 requires following a 30+ pages hardware design application note (Cypress’ AN70707) to ensure proper operation of that device. As for FPGA pin consumption, a minimum of 40 pins is required to attain 400 MB/s of data exchange through a slave FIFO (e.g. 200 MB/s in each direction, half the link capacity), since the parallel data clock is limited to 100 MHz.

It doesn’t end there: The FX3 contains an ARM9 processor for which firmware must be developed. This firmware may produce USB traffic by itself, or configure the device to expose a slave FIFO interface for streaming data from and to the FPGA. This way or another, code for the ARM processor needs to be developed in order to carry out the desired configuration, at a minimum.

This is done with Cypress’ SDK and based upon coding examples, but there’s no way around this extra firmware task, which requires detailed knowledge on how the device works. For example, to turn off the FX3′s LPM capability (which is a good idea in general), the CyU3PUsbLPMDisable() API function should be called. And there are many more of this sort.

Interface with application logic in the FPGA

XillyUSB follows Xillybus’ paradigm regarding interface with application logic: There’s a standard synchronous FIFO between the application logic and the XillyUSB IP core for each data stream, and the application logic uses it mindlessly: For an FPGA-to-host stream, the application logic just pushes the data into the FIFO (checking that it’s not full), knowing it will reach the host in a timely manner. For the opposite direction, it reads from the FIFO when it’s non-empty.

In other words, the application logic interfaces with these FIFOs like FPGA designers are used to, for the sake of streaming data between different functional modules in a design. There is no special attention required because the destination or source of the data is a USB data link.

The FX3′s slave FIFO interface may sound innocent, but it’s a parallel data and control signal interface, allowing the FPGA to issue read and write commands on buffers inside the FX3. This requires developing logic for a controller that interfaces with the slave FIFO interface: Selection of the FX3 buffer to work with, sense its full or empty status (depending on the direction) and transfer data with this synchronous interface. If more than one data stream is required between the FPGA and the host, this controller also needs to perform scheduling and multiplexing. State machines, buffering of data, arbitration, the whole thing.

Even though a controller of this sort may seem trivial, it’s often this type of logic that is exposed to corner cases regarding flow of data: The typical randomness of data availability on one side and the ability to receive it on the other, creates scenarios that are difficult to predict, simulate and test. Obtaining a bulletproof controller of this sort is therefore often significantly more difficult than designing one for a demo.

When working with XillyUSB (or any other Xillybus IP core), the multiplexing is done inside the IP core: Designed, tested and fine polished once and for all. And this opens for another advantage: Making changes to the data stream setting, and adding streams to an existing design is simple and doesn’t jeopardize the stability of the already existing logic. Thanks to Xillybus’ IP Core Factory, this only requires some simple operations on the website and downloading the new IP core. Its deployment in the FPGA design merely consists of replacing files, making trivial changes in the HDL following a template, and adding a standard FPGA FIFO for the new stream. Nothing else in the logic design changes, so there are no side effects.

Host software design

The FX3′s scope in the project is to present a USB device. The driver has to be written more or less from scratch. So the host software, whether as a kernel driver or a libusb user-space implementation, must be written with USB transfers as the main building block. For a reasonable data rate (or else why USB 3.0?), the software design must be asynchronous: Requests are queued for submission, and completer functions are called when these requests are completed. The simple wait-until-done method doesn’t work, because this leads to long time gaps of no communication on the USB link. Aside from the obvious impact on bandwidth utilization, this is likely to cause overflows or underflows in the FPGA’s buffers.

With XillyUSB (and once again, with other Xillybus IP cores too), a single, catch-all driver presents pipe-like device files. Plain command-line utilities like “cat” and “dd” can be used to implement reliable and practical data acquisition and playback. The XillyUSB IP core and the dedicated driver use the transfer-based USB protocol for creating an abstraction of a simple, UNIX-like data stream.

FPGA application logic: USB transfers or continuous data?

The USB specification was written with well-defined transfers in mind. The underlying idea was that the host allocates a buffer and queues a data transfer request, related to a certain USB endpoint, to or from that buffer. For continuous communication, several transfers can be queued. Yet, there are data buffers of fixed size, each waiting for its turn.

Some data sinks and sources are naturally organized in defined chunks of data, and fit USB’s concept well. From a software design’s point of view, it’s simpler to comprehend a mechanism that relies on fixed-sized buffers, requests and fulfillments.

But then, what is natural in an FPGA design? In most applications, continuous, non-packeted data is the common way. Even video applications, where there’s a clear boundary between frames, are usually implemented with regular FIFOs between the internal logic block. With XillyUSB, this is the way the data flows: FIFOs on the FPGA and pipe-like device files on the host side.

With FX3, on the other hand, the USB machinery needs direct attention. For example: When transmitting data towards the host, FX3′s slave FIFO interface requires asserting PKTEND# in order to commit the data to the host, which may also issue a zero-length packet instead. This complication is necessary to maintain USB’s concept of a transfer: Sending a USB DATA packet shorter than the maximal allowed length tells the host that the transfer is finished, even if the buffer that was allocated for the transfer isn’t filled. Therefore, the FX3 can’t just send whatever data it has in the buffer because it has nothing better to do. Doing so would terminate the transfer, which can mean something in the protocol between the driver and its device.

But then, if the transfer request buffer’s size isn’t a multiple of the maximal USB DATA packet size (1024 bytes for USB 3.0), PKTEND# must be asserted before this buffer fills, or a USB protocol error occurs, as the device sends more data than can be stored. The USB protocol doesn’t allow the leftovers to be stored in the next queued transfer’s buffer, and it’s not even clear if such transfer is queued.

If this example wasn’t clear because of too much new terminology, no problem, that was exactly the point: The USB machinery one needs to be aware of.

Physical link diagnostics

As a USB device can be connected to a wide range of USB host controllers, on various motherboards, through a wide range of USB cables, the quality of the bitstream link may vary. On a good day it’s completely error-free, but sometimes it’s a complete mess.

Low-level errors don’t necessarily cause immediate problems, and sometimes the visible problems don’t look like a low-level link issue. The USB protocol is designed to keep the show running to the extent possible (retransmits and whatnot), so what appears to be occasional problems with a USB device could actually be a bad link all the time, with random clusters of mishaps that make the problem become visible, every now and then.

Monitoring the link’s health is therefore beneficial, both in a lab situation, but nevertheless in a product. The application software can collect error event information, and warn the user that even though all seems well, it’s advisable to try a different USB port or cable. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

XillyUSB provides a simple means for telling something is wrong. There’s an output from the IP core, intended for a plain LED that flashes briefly for each error event that is detected. There are more detailed LEDs as well. Also, the XillyUSB driver creates a dedicated device file, from which diagnostic data can be read with a simple file operation. This diagnostic data chunk mainly consists of event counters for different error situations, which can be viewed with a utility that is downloaded along with XillyUSB’s driver for Linux. Likewise, a simple routine in an application suite can perform this monitoring for the sake of informing users about a problematic hardware setting.

Cypress’ FX3 does provide some error information of this sort, however this is exposed to the ARM processor inside the device itself. The SDK supplies functions such as CyU3PUsbInitEventLog() for enabling event logging and CyU3PUsbGetErrorCounts() for obtaining error count, but it’s the duty of the ARM’s firmware to transfer this data to the host. And then some kind of driver and utility are needed on the host as well.

The documentation for error counting is somewhat minimal, but looking at the definition of LNK_PHY_ERROR_CONF in the EZ-USB FX3 Technical Reference Manual helps.

Bugs and Errata

As always when evaluating a component for use, it’s suggested to read through the errata section in FX3′s datasheet. In particular, there’s a known problem causing errors in payload data towards the host, for which there is no planned fix. It occurs when a Zero Length Packet is followed by data “very quickly”, i.e. within a microframe of 125μs.

So first, 125μs isn’t “very quickly” in USB 3.0 terms. It’s the time corresponding to 62.5 kBytes of raw bandwidth of the link, which is a few dozens of DATA IN packets. Second, a zero length packet is something that is sent to finish a USB transfer. One can avoid it in some situations, but not in others. For example, if the transfer’s length is a multiple of 1024 bytes, the only way to finish it explicitly is with a zero length packet. The said errata requires not sending any data for 125 μs after such event, or there will be data errors.

This doesn’t just make the controller more complicated, but there’s a significant bandwidth penalty.

It may not be worth much saying that XillyUSB doesn’t have any bug of this sort, as it has been extensively tested with randomized data sources and sinks. It’s in fact quite odd that Cypress obviously didn’t perform tests of this sort (or they would have caught that bug easily).

The crucial difference is however that bugs in an IP core can be fixed and deployed quickly. There is no new silicon device to release, and no need to replace a physical device on the PCB.

No design is born perfect. The question is to what extent the issues that arise are fixed.

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