As a systems research team, we build operating systems, low-level software, hack kernels and yet hardware programming always remained on the todo-list of “cool, but haven’t tried yet”. When Cloudlab started introducing FPGA accelerators to their testbed, we got excited and finally decided to give it a try.

Cloudlab is one of the publicly available testbeds for research. In all of our projects, we carry out the whole development process on Cloudlab infrastructure. Recently, UMass Amherst cluster started offering machines with FPGA accelerator cards.

The official documentation of Cloudlab lists a variety of hardware nodes to choose from based on your needs. As of this writing, the FPGA machines on UMass cluster is still not listed on this documentation.

We set up an experiment with fpga-alveo hardware on UMass cluster. This machine also has a fairly recent CPU Intel(R) Xeon(R) Gold 6226R. Our experiment uses stock Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, which is recommended for all Xilinx software versioned v2021.2.

Setting up Xilinx development environment

  • The first step is to query the PCI bus for the presence of any Xilinx device. The accelerator cards would show up as two different physical functions (PFs), one for management (FPGA shell) and one for user programming. More details here
sudo lspci -d 10ee:
3b:00.0 Processing accelerators: Xilinx Corporation Device 500c
3b:00.1 Processing accelerators: Xilinx Corporation Device 500d
  • There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem in figuring out which hardware is connected to this machine. There has got to be a better way to figure out the type of hardware connected to your PCIe bus. But we were lazy and tried to do a quick search on UMass + cloudlab + fpga to figure out what UMass people were planning to populate on their cluster and we get a hit. We optimistically assumed they went with the same hardware listed on their proposal, which was Alveo U280 acceleration card.

  • From here on, things get accelerated a bit. Xilinx has a getting started page for each hardware that hosts the list of tools you would need to set up the environment. Here is the page for Alveo U280.

  • We installed the debian packages for the following components that are available from the Getting Started page. Installing with apt (i.e., apt install xilinx_debian_files.deb) should automatically install all the needed dependencies.

    • XRT (Xilinux Runtime)
    • Target Deployment platform
  • After installing, the device can be validated using this command. It also performs a few tests on the hardware.

$ sudo /opt/xilinx/xrt/bin/xbutil validate -d 0
INFO: Found 1 cards

INFO: Validating card[0]: xilinx_u280_xdma_201920_3
INFO: == Starting AUX power connector check:
INFO: == AUX power connector check PASSED
INFO: == Starting Power warning check:
INFO: == Power warning check PASSED
INFO: == Starting PCIE link check:
INFO: == PCIE link check PASSED
INFO: == Starting SC firmware version check:
INFO: == SC firmware version check PASSED
INFO: == Starting verify kernel test:
INFO: == verify kernel test PASSED
INFO: == Starting IOPS test:
Maximum IOPS: 84145 (hello)
INFO: == Starting DMA test:
Host -> PCIe -> FPGA write bandwidth = 11262.153007 MB/s
Host <- PCIe <- FPGA read bandwidth = 11899.228409 MB/s
INFO: == Starting device memory bandwidth test:
Maximum throughput: 43738 MB/s
INFO: == device memory bandwidth test PASSED
INFO: == Starting PCIE peer-to-peer test:
P2P BAR is not enabled. Skipping validation
INFO: == PCIE peer-to-peer test SKIPPED
INFO: == Starting memory-to-memory DMA test:
M2M is not available. Skipping validation
INFO: == memory-to-memory DMA test SKIPPED
INFO: == Starting host memory bandwidth test:
Host_mem is not available. Skipping validation
INFO: == host memory bandwidth test SKIPPED
INFO: Card[0] validated successfully.

INFO: All cards validated successfully.
  • However, to design/program the FPGA, you would need Vitis hardware suite that is available for download behind a registration wall.

Installables behind a registration wall

Below installables are available only after creating a Xilinx account.

  1. Development target platform
  2. Vitis Core Development Kit
  • Even for a minimal installation, Vitis suite would take around 170 GB of disk space. As Umass cluster does not support attaching a datastore currently, we installed all the software in the project specific NFS filesystem that is available under /proj/<your-project-name/. Please consult with Cloudlab administrators before installing it in the shared NFS drive.


PYNQ is an opensource library that provides a python API for Xilinx platforms. Installing PYNQ is fairly trivial with pip. However, one can follow advanced setup instructions (such as installing through Conda) detailed here

PYNQ in action

  • PYNQ relies on XRT that we installed earlier. So, it’s important to source the XRT environment before using the pynq python module.
source /opt/xilinx/xrt/
In [1]: import pynq

In [2]: pynq.Device.devices
Out[2]: [<pynq.pl_server.xrt_device.XrtDevice at 0x7fb8dd4549b0>]

In [3]: pynq.Device.devices[0].name
Out[3]: 'xilinx_u280_xdma_201920_3'

Hello World - A vector addition on U280

  • Vitis_Accel_Examples - hosts a variety of examples that can be programmed on Vitis supported platforms. We followed this introductory video to run hello_world example.

  • To build the examples, you need to source both the XRT and Vitis environment (Vitis environment brings in their c++ compiler v++).

source /opt/xilinx/xrt/
source /opt/tools/Xilinx/Vitis/2021.2/
  • (Likely) due to the Y2K22 bug, the above examples refuse to compile on version 2021.2. The error would look similar to this.

    • The workaround suggested in the above link is to use faketime package to force the date before 01 January, 2022.

    • One can compile and test for three different TARGETS (sw_emu, hw_emu, and hw). More description is available on the introductory video linked above.

  • Invoking make all with TARGET=hw would take a while to finish. It produces an xclbin file in the end that can be flashed onto the FPGA.

faketime '2021-12-31 12:00:00' make all TARGET=hw PLATFORM=xilinx_u280_xdma_201920_3  -j 32
INFO: [v++ 60-2256] Packaging for hardware
INFO: [v++ 60-2460] Successfully copied a temporary xclbin to the output xclbin: /opt/Vitis_Accel_Examples/hello_world/./build_dir.hw.xilinx_u280_xdma_201920_3/vadd.xclbin
INFO: [v++ 60-2343] Use the vitis_analyzer tool to visualize and navigate the relevant reports. Run the following command.
    vitis_analyzer /opt/Vitis_Accel_Examples/hello_world/build_dir.hw.xilinx_u280_xdma_201920_3/vadd.xclbin.package_summary
INFO: [v++ 60-791] Total elapsed time: 0h 0m 20s
INFO: [v++ 60-1653] Closing dispatch client
  • Example invocation (running make test with TARGET=hw)
faketime '2021-12-31 12:00:00' make test TARGET=hw PLATFORM=xilinx_u280_xdma_201920_3  -j 32
./hello_world ./build_dir.hw.xilinx_u280_xdma_201920_3/vadd.xclbin
Found Platform
Platform Name: Xilinx
INFO: Reading ./build_dir.hw.xilinx_u280_xdma_201920_3/vadd.xclbin
Loading: './build_dir.hw.xilinx_u280_xdma_201920_3/vadd.xclbin'
Trying to program device[0]: xilinx_u280_xdma_201920_3
Device[0]: program successful!

Validating vector addition using PYNQ

  • Let’s validate the hello world vector addition example using PYNQ. We can use pynq.Overlay class to load the generated xclbin file.
In [4]: ol = pynq.Overlay('/opt/Vitis_Accel_Examples/hello_world/build_dir.hw.xilinx_u280_xdma_201920_3/vadd.xclbin')
  • It is possible to access the kernel from the xclbin file. Our kernel (vector addition) is vadd. We can see the signature of the kernel.
In [8]: ol.vadd_1.signature
Out[8]: <Signature (in1:'void*', in2:'void*', out_r:'void*', size:'unsigned int')>
  • Let’s create input/output buffers to test the vadd kernel
# Allocate buffers
In [9]: in1 = pynq.allocate(32)

In [10]: in2 = pynq.allocate(32)

In [11]: out = pynq.allocate(32)

In [12]: import random

# Populate input data with random numbers
In [13]: for x in range(0, in1.size):
    ...:     in1[x] = random.randint(1, 512)
    ...:     in2[x] = random.randint(1, 512)

In [14]: in1
PynqBuffer([397, 409, 434,  70, 192, 335, 258, 213, 255, 459, 376, 306,
            102, 166, 323,  20, 129, 253, 396, 378, 247, 295, 381,   5,
            446, 217, 481, 140, 115, 285, 477,   5], dtype=uint32)

In [15]: in2
PynqBuffer([243,  88, 497, 143, 347,  34, 319, 102, 197,  17,  45, 212,
             79, 473, 257, 188, 468, 466, 263, 170,  94, 171, 124,  36,
            454,  73, 172,  27,  50, 279, 381,  27], dtype=uint32)
  • The input buffers need to be sync-ed to the device
In [16]: in1.sync_to_device()

In [17]: in2.sync_to_device()
  • We can invoke the kernel on the inputs we created (in1 and in2) by invoking the call method on the kernel.
In [18]:, in2, out, 32)
  • Finally, we can validate the output by syncing the out buffer back to the host.
In [19]: out
PynqBuffer([0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0,
            0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0], dtype=uint32)

In [20]: out.sync_from_device()

In [21]: out
PynqBuffer([640, 497, 931, 213, 539, 369, 577, 315, 452, 476, 421, 518,
            181, 639, 580, 208, 597, 719, 659, 548, 341, 466, 505,  41,
            900, 290, 653, 167, 165, 564, 858,  32], dtype=uint32)

Revisiting the node

If you happen to swap out the node, just install the dependencies and also the kernel modules necessary for accessing the Xilinx devices (xocl.ko and xclmgmt.ko). The easiest way is to just re-install the XRT component from the deb package which takes care of installing the kernel modules and other dependencies.

In Part 2, we will create a Vivado project for Alveo U280 card directly from Verilog sources.