How to interact between Nios and FPGA?

Example: Let's assume there is a Nios running on a FPGA that sends randomly (or every second) a string to an attached display over the SPI interface. On the other hand there is the FPGA code that monitors a pushbutton. Every press on this button should send a string to the same attached display.

Question: How works the interaction (or communication) between the FPGA and Nios in general or in such described case? How is it possible to 'inform' Nios that the pushbutton is pressed when this code is running under the FPGA code? Maybe there is a documentation about this topic to get an idea how it works...

Thanks in advance


  • Low speed or high speed?

    For low speed, plug a GPIO core with enough I/O "pins" into the NIOS system and rebuild it. Wire your hardware to those pins, and use the GPIO driver code to access them. Done. Buttons count as low speed. SPI can too, though you'll probably find a much better SPI peripheral for NIOS, so I'd use that.

    For high speed, you need to design a peripheral (IP core) that interfaces to whatever bus the NIOS system uses, and provides all the registers, memory, interrupt sources etc you need to interface to your VHDL hardware. There are plenty of example peripherals you can use as a starting point. Then you get to write the driver software to access that peripheral, again, starting from sample code.

    This is a much more complex project, and while it's much faster than GPIO, you find "high speed" is relative; any embedded CPU is appallingly slow compared to custom hardware. We're not talking about factors of 2 here but orders of magnitude.

    EDIT : Whichever approach you use, as described above, interacting with the hardware from the software side is best done through the driver software.

    If you're in the situation where you have to write your own driver, then you declare variables to match each accessible register or memory block (represented by an array variable). Often the vendor tools can create a skeleton driver for you, from either the VHDL code or some other description. I don't know how Altera/Nios tools are set up but they surely have tutorials to teach you their approach.

    If you have an Ada compiler you can declare these variables at package scope, to maintain proper abstraction and information hiding. But if you have to use C, with no packages, you are probably stuck with global variables.

    You fix each variable at whatever physical address your hardware maps them to, and you must declare them "volatile" so that accesses to them are never optimised into registers.

    If your hardware can interrupt the CPU, you have to write an interrupt handler function, with pragmas to tell the compiler which interrupt vector it should be connected to. You'll need to get the exact details from your own compiler documentation and examples of driver code for other peripherals.

    I would start here: https://www.altera.com/support/support-resources/design-examples/intellectual-property/embedded/nios-ii/exm-developing-hal-drivers.html

    with sample code and a short "Guidelines" document

    and use the NIOS software handbook for more depth.

    To help find what you're looking for, apparently Altera use the terms "HAL" (Hardware Abstraction Layer) to describe the part of the driver that directly accesses the hardware, and "BSP" (Board Support Package) for the facilities that allow you to describe your hardware to the tools - and to your software team. Any tools to build a skeleton driver will be associated with the BSP : I see a section called "Creating a new BSP" in the software handbook.