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SKARAB is an agile, networked, FPGA-centric cluster computing or instrument node. The Square Kilometre Array Reconfigurable Application Board (SKARAB) is the latest generation of CASPER FPGA hardware. It is the next generation/successor to the ROACH2 platform. Unlike previous CASPER platforms, the SKARAB was designed by the South African company, Peralex, according to the specifications of SKA-SA. SKARAB can be purchased from Cyntony Corporation (USA) outside of South Africa.

The SKARAB makes provision for four mezzanine card sites with each site providing an interface to 16 high-speed (10~Gb/s) serial transceivers. Three mezzanine cards currently exist for SKARAB: a QSFP+ Mezzanine Module which provides support for four 40Gb Ethernet interfaces, a Hybrid Memory Cube (HMC) module providing high memory bandwidth at 4GB capacity per a module and a ADC Mezzanine Card, compatible with the SKARAB mezzanine interface has been produced and is currently undergoing testing and evaluation. The ADC Mezzanine Module provides two TI AD32RF45 dual 3 GSPS 14-bit ADC chips with DDC, for four A/D channels per mezzanine card.

The SKARAB board does not include an on-board CPU, though provision has been made for the COM Express mezzanine site which can interface with an external processor via single lane PCIe. Instead, control of the board has been implemented using a Microblaze soft processor core.

SKARAB boards have recently been made available to the general community, with SAO using two and the MeerKAT project planning to deploy 300 boards by the end of 2017.

Design Features

SKARAB is an integrated 1U rack-mountable box that contains a large PCB populated with a Xilinx Virtex 7 FPGA possessing 693120 logic cells, 80 SERDES channels, 1470 x 32kb RAM blocks and 3600 DSP slices. Four mezzanine card sites are included with 400 pin Megarray connectors, each providing an interface to 16 high-speed (10 Gb/s SERDES) serial transceivers. A 1 GbE and 40 GbE system configuration and management port is included as well as system management electronics, cooling and power supply. Special design attention was applied to the thermal design, digital signal integrity and reliability for long-life, high-performance operation.

The SKARAB design includes the following notable features:

  • A Full-Platform Solution
  • 1 x Virtex-7 XC7VX690T FPGA (XC7VX690T-2FFG1927C) for running the user DSP algorithms
  • Microblaze softcore processor running on the Virtex 7 FPGA to provide control functions
  • 4 x MegaArray transceiver Mezzanine card slots, supporting up to 16x10Gb/s links which may be utilised for HMC and QSFP+
  • 1 x QSFP+ Mezzanine Card with 4 x 40GbE full duplex ports
  • Optional: 1-3 x HMC Mezzanine Cards capable of operating at 32Gbps, 256bit data transfers, full duplex operation
  • Optional: 1 x ADC Mezzanine Card, 4 channel, 14 bits, 3.0 GSPS
  • 1GbE Ethernet RJ45 interface
  • 1 x 256Mb SDRAM for dynamic FPGA configuration connected to the Virtex 7 FPGA and SPARTAN device
  • 1 x 1Gb NOR Flash, MT28GU01GAAA1EGC-0SIT for the Virtex 7 FPGA golden and multi-boot image storage
  • A single COM Express mezzanine site that can be connected to an external processor via single lane PCIe
  • 1 x SPARTAN 3AN FPGA (XC3S700AN-4FGG484C) to handle the Virtex 7 FPGA dynamic reconfiguration
  • An FTDI FT4232H USB to JTAG, serial and IIC
  • Power: Input 115/220 Vac
SKARAB board
SKARAB board with HMC Mezzanine Cards
SKARAB boards in rack (front view)
SKARAB boards in rack (back view)

Block Diagram

The current block diagram is shown below:

SKARAB Block Diagram

Project Status

The SKARAB hardware is in full production.

Github repository

A Github repository is used to host all the SKARAB design and toolflow files. The repo structure is as follows:

1) (master branch). This contains the JASPER toolflow - Simulink, Matlab and Python scripts to generate the fpg file from the Simulink model.

2) (master branch). This represents our comms interface to the SKARAB via the microblaze - Python scripts.

3) (master branch). This represents the latest SKA-SA board support package (BSP). It has been built on top of the original Peralex BSP package, but modified to support our requirements. The latest SKA-SA BSP is sitting at version 2.3. There are two images that need to be configured for each SKARAB: Multiboot image (frm123701u1r1_mez3_ska_sa.hex or *.bin) and the Golden Image (frm123701u1r1_mez3_golden_ska_sa.hex or *.bin). The SKARAB always boots up with the Multiboot image and if there is an issue with the programming of the toolflow image or Multiboot image then the board will boot with the Golden image (default safe image). The Multiboot and Golden Image are identical, except for the boot parameters. The Golden Image is loaded into the FPGA at a lower clock frequency to ensure the board boots. The casperfpga repo wiki explains how to configure the board. There are also other programming files in the repo. The *.mcs is used to configure the flash device using Vivado and the JTAG (you will not need this during normal operation). The *.ufp image is used to configure the SPARTAN device on the SKARAB (you will not need this during normal operation).

4) (master branch). This repo contains the source code of the microblaze. All you need to do is run the makefile to generate the elf file, if you decide to make new changes to the source. There is a readme.txt file that explains a bit more. The elf file that will be generated needs to be copied to the "ska-sa/mlib_devel/jasper_library/hdl_sources/forty_gbe/cont_microblaze" folder. Once this is done you will need to link this file to the EMB123701U1R1.elf link by typing in "ln -s <new_elf_name.elf> EMB123701U1R1.elf (remember to delete the old link first). You are now ready to use the JASPER toolflow with the new elf file.

5) (master branch). This repo contains all the how to, install and manual documents for the SKARAB.

Schematics and Design Files

1) Please enquire at SKA-SA for more information related to schematics and design files SKA-SA email

2) Please enquire at Peralex for more information related to schematics and design files Peralex email


In order to meet the new F-engine and X-engine requirements for the MeerKAT radio telescope new hardware is required. The SKARAB has been designed to replace the ROACH2 hardware, which is legacy hardware by providing these new requirements. In particular, the following critical requirements have been addressed:

  • The need to accommodate a 32K FFT and above
  • The need to handle a processing rate of 32Gbps due to the increased data throughput
  • The need for more on-board data storage and serialised memory to handle the throughput => the 4GB HMC Mezzanine Card
  • The need to move from 10GbE to 40GbE in order to handle the throughput
  • Easier timing closure using the Virtex 7 FPGA, which is currently an issue with large ROACH2 FPGA designs
  • Move away from old legacy ISE tools to the latest Xilinx Vivado tool set

All documentation related to the SKARAB design can be found under the following repo: (master branch)

Refer to the "peralex" folder for a good description of the SKARAB hardware and firmware design. This should be read in conjunction with the casperfpga wiki, which is located at:

Mezzanine Cards

The SKARAB makes provision for three Mezzanine cards, which are all in full production and ready to be ordered:

  • QSFP+ Mezzanine Card
  • ADC Mezzanine Card
  • HMC Mezzanine Card

QSFP+ Mezzanine Card

The Quad Small Form Pluggable (QSFP+) Mezzanine Card provides the SKARAB with 40GbE functionality. It consists of 4 x 40GbE QSFP+ ports and the QSFP+ Mezzanine Card can be placed in any mezzanine slot, but CASPER readers should be aware that the toolflow only supports mezzanine slot 3 at the moment. This will be addressed in the future. The board is designed and manufactured by Peralex.

More information on the QSFP+ Mezzanine Card can be found under the following repo (in the "peralex" folder): (master branch)

ADC Mezzanine Card

The ADC Mezzanine Card, SKARAB ADC32RF45X2, is a four channel, 3.0 GSPS, 14 bit analog to digital converter, designed specifically for the SKARAB. The ADC is capable of digitizing signals from near DC to 3.2/4.0 GHz, at a bandwidth of up to 1.5GHz. The ADC mezzanine card can be placed on any of the SKARAB mezzanine sites. The board is designed and manufactured by Peralex.

More information on the ADC Mezzanine Card can be found under the following repo (in the "peralex" folder): (master branch)

HMC Mezzanine Card

The HMC (Hybrid Memory Cube) Mezzanine Card, is a 4GB, serialised memory, which uses 16 x 10Gbps SERDES lanes to the FPGA per a mezzanine site. The HMC hardware works using the OpenHMC core designed by Juri Schmidt who works for the Computer Architecture Group at the University of Heidelberg CAG and OpenHMC. The OpenHMC core is designed to be fully configurable, but SKA-SA are using the configuration: 256 bit data transfer and 4 FLITS per a word. The board is designed by SKA-SA, but manufactured by Peralex.

NB: The hardware is using the Micron HMC MT43A4G80200 4GB 8H DRAM stack device which is now obsolete.

More information on the HMC Mezzanine Card can be found under the following repo (in the "peralex" folder): (master branch)

Schematics and Design Files

1) Please enquire at SKA-SA for more information related to schematics and design files SKA-SA email

2) Please enquire at Peralex for more information related to schematics and design files Peralex email


Production for the SKARAB hardware is handled by Peralex Peralex, a South African company. For more information on production related matters then please speak to Peralex Peralex email. Please note, SKARAB can be purchased from Cyntony Corporation (USA) outside of South Africa Cyntony.

  • 2 SKARABs have been delivered to SAO in the US
  • 80 SKARABs have currently been delivered to SKA-SA
  • By the end of Nov 2017, 120 more SKARABs will be delivered to SKA-SA
  • The remainder of the SKA-SA SKARABs (100) will be delivered June 2018

Board Support Package

The SKARAB Board Support Package (BSP) firmware is primarily managed by SKA-SA and includes:

1) 1 Gb Ethernet core (for health monitoring, control)

  • MAC only (external PHY)

2) 40 Gb Ethernet core (high speed data and health monitoring, control)

  • MAC
  • PHY (XLAUI/XLPPI to external PHY/QSFP+)

3) Hybrid Memory Cube controller core (by SKA-SA)

  • uses OpenHMC and custom SKA-SA generated firmware

4) Management microcontroller

  • MicroBlaze uC with Wishbone peripheral bus 

  • 1-Wire Configuration PROM access 

  • Voltage/current monitors (12 rails) 

  • Fan control/status 

  • High speed network-based FPGA boot 

  • Network setup/management for 1 GbE and 40 GbE interfaces (PING, DHCP,etc) 

The latest SKARAB BSP images can be found under the following repo: (master branch).

NB: The HMC is a yellow block within the toolflow, but is not part of the SKARAB BSP. The SKARAB BSP is currently integrated as part of the 40GbE yellow block, so if you want to target the SKARAB the reader will need to use the 40GbE yellow block. The possibility of extracting the BSP from the 40GbE yellow block will be addressed in the future.


The SKARAB toolflow currently uses Matlab R2016b, Xilinx Vivado 2016.2 and Ubuntu 14.04 LTS. It has not been tested on any other versions and hence, the results cannot be guaranteed when using different software versions than those specified here.

The toolflow can be found under the following repo: (master branch)

Refer to the above repo wiki for how to run the JASPER toolflow.

You can find documentation on how to install Matlab and Xilinx Vivado under the following repo: (master branch)

NB: The ADC Mezzanine Card is currently not supported by the JASPER toolflow and no yellow block exists for this yet.

FPGA Configuration

Note the design intent of SKARAB is that the flash (and backup flash) images are bootloaders, and should never be reprogrammed/overwritten with application code (behaving much like the BIOS in a PC). This is in strong contrast to how most FPGA platforms work, where end users are accustomed to programming their application into FPGA configuration flashes. While it is certainly possible to put end user images in boot flash, this defeats much of the rapid on-the-fly reconfiguration of the platform. The SDRAM-based reconfiguration should be the only option that an end user ever needs (unless non-volatility of end user application is important).  The end user application image should also contain sufficient support (BSP framework) to support further reconfiguration. If the end user SDRAM image is corrupted and/or is incorrectly set up to support further reconfiguration, then a power cycle will cause the unit to fall back to the bootloader image (boot the flash), and wait for new application code to be uploaded.

There are currently two bootloader flash images:

  • Golden Image, which is loaded if the SDRAM image is corrupt or something goes wrong with the boot up procedure (safe image)
  • Multi-boot image, which is loaded each time the SKARAB is powered up and no issues with the configuration occurred (normal image)


All documentation related to the SKARAB can be found under the following repo: (master branch)

Refer to the "peralex" folder for a good description of the SKARAB technical specs

User Guide

Best Practices

The following is a best practices guide compiled by SAO when trying to bring up their SKARABs during the period of June 2017, which should also be available on the CASPER email thread:

1) We didn’t get anywhere without the right tools software rev levels:  Matlab 2016b and Vivado 2016.2 Our Mathworks and Xilinx support had expired due to my own lazyness.  We were informed that older versions should work, as there are no dependencies critical to these versions, but there are rev level cross checks in various config files, and we could not in practice work around these. In the end we asked for 30 day trials to get by while processing paid renewals.

2) A documentation error, now corrected,  directed us to the wrong branch of the Git Repo which obstructed builds. Use the master branch *not*  jasper_vivado_2016_2 branch.  After changing branches it was also necessary to update the script. NB: jasper_vivado_2016_2 branch has since been deleted.

3) Loading and running bitcodes on SKARAB: One needs proper rev levels of the SKARAB Spartan (1.5) and Virtex 7 (2.2) FPGA firmware  (The latter was known as the “SOC” firmware, now deprecated, and includes the MicroBlaze processor IP). NB: the BSP package has been updated and is now on version 2.3.

4) One also needs the correct version of casperfpga utility compatible with firmware versions. NB: this is currently being addressed in casperfpga.

5) Our SKARABs shipped with older firmware versions.  In attempting to update them as a first step one of our SKARABs went into a non-responsive state, which was referred to as “bricked” on the CASPER list.  The SKARAB was not in fact strictly bricked, rather it was found that pacing hostname with the DHCP response (via /etc/hosts and dnsmasq) then it would continuously keep sending DHCP requests and never actually boot up with an IP.  We have only best guesses for how we got into this state: namely used a very old and apparently incompatible version of the casperfpga utility to first attempt the firmware upgrade via Ethernet.  Recovery required updating the Virtex 7 firmware via JTAG following unpublished procedures (it is planned to have to take the lids off SKARABs in the field).  For reasons we don’t fully understand the non-responsive unit only recovered on the second JTAG firmware upgrade attempt—a pleasant surprise at that point, we didn’t look that gift horse in the mouth. NB: this should not be an issue for other SKARAB users as the SKARAB will be shipped with the latest firmware.

6) Other smaller issues: There is a need to reprogram the bitcode onto the SKARAB after exiting and restarting ipython in order to access software registers and snapshot blocks through casperfpga.

7) One needs to disconnect the 40 GbE cables from the SKARABs when uploading bitcodes over 1 GbE, otherwise communication will be lost and the SKARAB needs to be reset. NB: the microblaze now determines the interface, so this will no longer be an issue.

8) One needs to enable jumbo packets on 1 GigE networks (Server NIC MTU size 1500 to 9000); when not enabled caused checksum errors on loading.  In our case the server NIC was not properly set up.

9) 40GigE communications: To send data from one SKARAB to another, the 40 GbE ports must be routed through a switch in order for the SKARABs to be assigned an IP address via DHCP.  A possible alternative is to use a static IP assignment, but this is not transparently supported in current JASPER tools and libraries.  Covered in detail by Wes and Clifford in this very email thread.

10) The Jumbo packets issue also arose on the 40 GIgE network.  When trying to send data over 40 GbE from a SKARAB, through the switch, and into a server, the MTU size had to be set to 9000.

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