Sunday, June 16, 2024

FPGA vs Microcontroller: The Ultimate Programmable Showdown

FPGA vs Microcontroller

Two types of integrated circuits (ICs) that are frequently contrasted are field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and microcontroller units (MCUs). Embedded systems and digital design are two typical applications for these ICs. It is possible to think of FPGA vs microcontroller as “small computers” that may be included into smaller gadgets and bigger systems.

Programmability and processing power are the main distinctions between FPGA and microcontroller as processors. FPGAs are more costly even though they have greater power and versatility. Microcontrollers are less expensive, but they also offer less customisation. Microcontrollers are quite powerful and affordable in many applications. Nonetheless, FPGAs are required for some demanding or evolving applications, such as those that need parallel processing.

FPGAs have hardware reprogrammability, in contrast to microcontrollers. Because of their distinctive design, users are able to alter the chip’s architecture to suit the needs of the application. Microcontrollers can only read one line of code, but FPGAs can handle many inputs. An FPGA can be programmed like a microcontroller, but not vice versa.

The FPGA is field-programmable gate array

FPGAs from Xilinx debuted in 1985. Processing power and adaptability are their hallmarks. Therefore, they are recommended for many DSP, prototyping, and HPC applications.

FPGAs, unlike ASICs, can be customised and reconfigured “in the field,” after production. FPGAs’ primary feature is customisation, but they also require programmability. FPGAs must be configured in verilog or VHDL, unlike ASICs. Programming an FPGA requires expertise, which increases costs and delays adoption. Generally, FPGAs need to be set upon startup, however some do have non-volatile memory that can save programming instructions after the device is turned down.

FPGA advantages

FPGAs are nonetheless helpful in applications that demand high performance, low latency, and real-time adaptability in spite of these difficulties. FPGAs work especially effectively in applications that need the following:

Quick prototyping

FPGAs may be readily configured into a variety of customised digital circuit types, avoiding the need for expensive and time-consuming fabrication processes and enabling faster deployments, evaluations, and modifications.

Hardware-based accelerated

The FPGA’s parallel processing capabilities are advantageous for demanding applications. For computationally demanding applications like machine learning algorithms, cryptography, and signal processing, FPGAs may provide considerable performance gains.


FPGAs are a versatile hardware option that are simple to customise to fit the demands of a given project.


Given that FPGAs may be updated and modified to meet changing project demands and technology standards, FPGA-based designs may have a longer hardware lifecycle.

FPGA parts

FPGAs are made up of a variety of programmable logic units connected by a programmable routing fabric in order to provide reconfigurability. The following are the key parts of a standard FPGA:

Blocks of configurable logic (CLBs)

In addition to providing computation capabilities, CLBs may have a limited number of simple logic components, including flip-flops for data storage, multiplexors, logic gates, and small look-up tables (LUTs).

Interconnects with programming capabilities

These linkages, which consist of wire segments connected by electrically programmable switches, offer routing channels between the various FPGA resources, enabling the development of unique digital circuits and a variety of topologies.

Blocks for I/O (IOBs)

Input output (I/O) blocks facilitate the interaction between an FPGA and other external devices by enabling the FPGA to receive data from and operate peripherals.

FPGA applications

Due to its versatility, FPGAs are used in many industries.

Aerospace and defence

FPGAs are the ideal option for image processing, secure communications, radar systems, and radar systems because they provide high-speed parallel processing that is useful for data collecting.

Systems of industrial control (ICS)

Power grids, oil refineries, and water treatment plants are just a few examples of the industrial control systems that use FPGAs, which are easily optimised to match the specific requirements of different industries. FPGAs can be utilised to create several automations and hardware-based encryption features for effective cybersecurity in these vital industries.

ASIC creation

New ASIC chips are frequently prototyped using FPGAs.


FPGAs are ideally suited for advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS), sensor fusion, and GPS due to their sophisticated signal processing capabilities.

Information hubs

By optimising high-bandwidth, low-latency servers, networking, and storage infrastructure, FPGAs enhance the value of data centres.

Features of FPGAs

  • Processor core: Logic blocks that can be configured
  • Memory: Interface for external memory
  • auxiliary parts: Modifiable input/output blocks
  • Programming: Hardware description language (VHDL, Verilog) is used in programming.
  • Reconfigurability: Extremely reprogrammable and reconfigurable logic

What is a microcontroller?

Microcontrollers are a kind of small, pre-assembled ASIC that have an erasable programmable read-only memory (EPROM) for storing bespoke programmes, memory (RAM), and a processor core (or cores). Microcontrollers, sometimes referred to as “system-on-a-chip (SoC)” solutions, are essentially tiny computers combined into a single piece of hardware that may be utilised separately or in larger embedded systems.

Because of their affordable accessibility, hobbyists and educators prefer consumer-grade microcontrollers, including the Arduino Starter Kit and Microchip Technology PIC, which can be customised using assembly language or mainstream programming languages (C, C++). Microcontrollers are frequently used in industrial applications and are also capable of managing increasingly difficult and important jobs. However, in more demanding applications, a microcontroller’s effectiveness may be limited by reduced processing power and memory resources.

Benefits of microcontrollers

Microcontrollers have numerous benefits despite their drawbacks, such as the following:

Small-scale layout

Microcontrollers combine all required parts onto a single, compact chip, making them useful in applications where weight and size are important considerations.

Energy effectiveness

Because they utilise little power, microcontrollers are perfect for battery-powered gadgets and other power-constrained applications.


By delivering a full SoC solution, microcontrollers reduce peripheral needs.All-purpose, low-cost microcontrollers can significantly cut project costs.


While less flexible than FPGA and microcontroller can be programmed for many applications. Software can change, update, and tune microcontrollers, but hardware cannot.

Parts of microcontrollers

Compact and capable, self-contained microcontrollers are an excellent option when reprogrammability is not a top concern. The essential parts of a microcontroller are as follows:

CPU, or central processing unit

The CPU, sometimes known as the “brain,” executes commands and manages processes.


Non-volatile memory (ROM, FLASH) stores the microcontroller’s programming code, while volatile memory (RAM) stores temporary data that could be lost if the system loses power.


Depending on the application, a microcontroller may have communication protocols (UART, SPI, I2C) and I/O interfaces like timers, counters, and ADCs.

Use cases for microcontrollers

Small, inexpensive, and non-volatile microcontrollers, in contrast to FPGAs, are widely used in contemporary electronics and are typically employed for certain purposes, such as the following:

Vehicle systems

Airbag deployment, engine control, and in-car infotainment systems all require microcontrollers.

End-user devices

Smartphones, smart TVs, and other household appliances especially IoT-connected ones use microcontrollers.

Automation in industry

Industrial applications include process automation, machinery control, and system monitoring are ideal uses for microcontrollers.

Medical equipment

Microcontrollers are frequently used in life-saving equipment including blood glucose monitors, pacemakers, and diagnostic instruments.

Features of a microcontroller

Central processing unit: Unchanged CPU
Memory: ROM/Flash and integrated RAM
Auxiliary parts: Integrated I/O interfaces for Software (C, Assembly) Programming
Limited reconfigurability; firmware upgrades

Important distinctions between microcontrollers and FPGAs

A number of significant distinctions between FPGA and microcontroller should be taken into account when comparing them, including developer requirements, hardware architecture, processing power, and capabilities.

Hardware configuration

FPGA: Easy-to-customize programmable logic blocks and interconnects for digital circuits.
Microcontroller: A fixed-architecture microcontroller contains a CPU, memory, and peripherals.

Capabilities for processing

FPGA: Multiple simultaneous processes are made possible by advanced parallel processing.
Microcontroller: Capable of handling only one instruction at a time, microcontrollers are made for sequential processing.

Power usage

FPGA: Power consumption is usually higher than that of microcontrollers.
Microcontroller: Designed to use less power, ideal for applications that run on batteries.


FPGA: Configuring and debugging this device requires specific understanding of hardware description languages.
Microcontroller: Software development languages such as Javascript, Python, C, C++, and assembly languages can be used to programming microcontrollers.


FPGA: FPGA hardware offers more power but comes with a higher price tag due to its higher power consumption and need for specialised programming abilities. It also requires advanced expertise.
Microcontroller: Typically, a less expensive option that is readily available off the shelf, uses less power, and supports more widely used programming languages.


FPGA: Compared to microcontrollers, FPGAs are much more flexible and enable hardware customisation.
Microcontroller: Compared to FPGAs, microcontrollers only provide surface-level customisation, despite being well-suited for a wide range of applications.

Examine the infrastructure solutions offered by IBM

Whether you’re searching for a small, affordable microcontroller or a flexible, potent FPGA processor, think about how IBM’s cutting-edge infrastructure solutions may help you grow your company. The new IBM FlashSystem 5300 offers enhanced cyber-resilience and performance. New IBM Storage Assurance makes storage ownership easier and supports you in resolving IT lifecycle issues.



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