IO Processors: Software Architecture

There are a number of steps required before you can start writing your own software for an IOP (IO Processor). This document will describe the IOP architecture, and how to set up and build the required software projects to allow you to write your own application for the MicroBlaze inside an IOP. Xilinx® SDK projects can be created manually using the SDK GUI, or software can be built using a Makefile flow.

IO Processors

As described in the previous section, an IOP can be used as a flexible controller for different types of external peripherals. The ARM® Cortex®-A9 is an application processor, which runs Pynq and Jupyter notebook on a Linux OS. This scenario is not well suited to real-time applications, which is a common requirement for an embedded systems. In the base overlay there are three IOPs. As well as acting as a flexible controller, an IOP can be used as dedicated real-time controller.

IOPs can also be used standalone to offload some processing from the main processor. However, note that the MicroBlaze processor inside an IOP in the base overlay is running at 100 MHz, compared to the Dual-Core ARM Cortex-A9 running at 650 MHz. The clock speed, and different processor architectures and features should be taken into account when offloading pure application code. e.g. Vector processing on the ARM Cortex-A9 Neon processing unit will be much more efficient than running on the MicroBlaze. The MicroBlaze is most appropriate for low-level, background, or real-time applications.

Software requirements

Xilinx SDK (Software Development Kit) contains the MicroBlaze cross-compiler which can be used to build software for the MicroBlaze inside an IOP. SDK is available for free as part of the Xilinx Vivado WebPack.

The full source code for all supported IOP peripherals is available from the project GitHub. Pynq ships with precompiled IOP executables to support various peripherals (see Pynq Modules), so Xilinx software is only needed if you intend to modify existing code, or build your own IOP applications/peripheral drivers.

The current Pynq release is built using Vivado and SDK 2016.1. it is recommended to use the same version to rebuild existing Vivado and SDK projects. If you only intend to build software, you will only need to install SDK. The full Vivado and SDK installation is only required to modify or design new overlays. Download Xilinx Vivado and SDK 2016.1 You can use the Vivado HLx Web Install Client and select SDK and/or Vivado during the installation.

Compiling projects

Software executables run on the MicroBlaze inside an IOP. Code for the MicroBlaze can be written in C or C++ and compiled using Xilinx SDK .

You can pull or clone the Pynq GitHub repository, and all the driver source and project files can be found in <GitHub Repository>\Pynq-Z1\sdk, (Where <GitHub Repository> is the location of the PYNQ repository).

SDK Application, Board Support Package, Hardware Platform

Each SDK application project requires a BSP project (Board Support Package), and a hardware platform project. The application project will include the user code (C/C++). The Application project is linked to a BSP. The BSP (Board Support Package) contains software libraries and drivers to support the underlying peripherals in the system and is automatically generated in SDK. The BSP is then linked to a Hardware Platform. A Hardware Platform defines the peripherals in the IOP subsystem, and the memory map of the system. It is used by the BSP to build software libraries to support the underlying hardware. The hardware platform is also automatically generated in SDK.

All Application projects and the underlying BSP and hardware platform can be compiled from the command line using makefiles, or imported into the SDK GUI.

You can also use existing projects as a starting point to create your own project.

Hardware Platform (HDF file)

Before an Application project and BSP can be created or compiled in SDK, a Hardware Platform project is required.

A Hardware Description File (.hdf), created by Vivado, is used to create the Hardware Platfrom project in SDK.

A precompiled .hdf file is provided, so it is not necessary to run Vivado to generate a .hdf file:

<GitHub Repository>/Pynq-Z1/sdk/

There will be one hardware platform for each overlay.

Board Support Package

Once the hardware platform has been generated, the BSP can be built. A BSP includes software libraries for peripherals in the system. It must be linked to a Hardware Platform, as this is where the peripherals in the system are defined. Once the BSP has been generated, an application project can then be linked to a BSP, and use the software libraries available in the BSP.

A BSP is specific to a processor subsystem. There can be many BSPs associated with an overlay, depending on the types of processors available in the system. In the case of the base overlay, there are two types of processor subsystems: Pmod IOP and Arduino IOP which both require a BSP. The BSPs will share the same hardware platform.

An application for the Pmod IOP will be linked to the Pmod IOP BSP. As the two Pmod IOPs are identical, an application written for one Pmod IOP can run on the other Pmod IOP. An Arduino application will be linked to the Pmod IOP BSP.

Building the projects

A Makefile to automatically create and build the Hardware Platform and the BSP can be found in the same location as the .hdf file.

<GitHub Repository>/Pynq-Z1/sdk/makefile

Application projects for peripherals that ship with Pynq (e.g. Pmods and Grove peripherals) can also be found in the same location. Each project is contained in a separate folder.

The makefile uses the .hdf file to create the Hardware Platform. The BSP can then be created. The application projects will also be compiled automatically as part of this process.

The makefile requires SDK to be installed, and can be run from Windows, or Linux.

To run make from Windows, open SDK, and choose a temporary workspace (make sure this path is external to the downloaded GitHub repository). From the Xilinx Tools menu, select Launch Shell


In Linux, open a terminal, and source the SDK tools.

From either the Windows Shell, or the Linux terminal, navigate to the sdk folder in your local copy of the GitHub repository:

cd to <GitHub Repository>/Pynq-Z1/sdk and run make
_images/sdk_make.JPG _images/sdk_make_result.JPG

This will create the Hardware Platform Project (hw_def), and the Board Support Package (bsp), and then link and build all the application projects.

If you examine the makefile, you can see how the MBBINS variable at the top of the makefile is used to compile the application projects. If you want to add your own custom project to the build process, you need to add the project name to the MBBINS variable, and save the project in the same location as the other application projects.

Individual projects can be built by navigating to the <project directory>/Debug and running make.

Binary files

Compiling code produces an executable file (.elf) which needs to be converted to binary format (.bin) to be downloaded to, and run on, an IOP.

A .bin file can be generated from a .elf by running the following command from the SDK shell:

mb-objcopy -O binary <inputfile>.elf <outputfile>.bin

This is done automatically by the makefile for the existing application projects. The makefile will also copy all .bin files into the <GitHub Repository>/Pynq-Z1/sdk/bin folder.

Creating your own Application project

Using the akefile flow, you can use an existing project as a starting point for your own project.

Copy and rename the project, and modify or replace the .c file in the src/ with your C code. The generated .bin file will have the same base name as your C file.

e.g. if your C code is my_peripheral.c, the generated .elf and .bin will be my_peripheral.elf and my_peripheral.bin.

The following naming convention is recommended for peripheral applications <pmod|grove|arduino>_<peripheral>

You will need to update references from the old project name to your new project name in <project directory>/Debug/makefile and <project directory>/Debug/src/

If you want your project to build in the main makefile, you should also append the .bin name of your project to the MBBINS variable at the top of the makefile.

If you are using the SDK GUI, you can import the Hardware Platform, BSP, and any application projects into your SDK workspace.


The SDK GUI can be used to build and debug your code.

IOP Memory architecture

Each IOP has local memory (implemented in Xilinx BRAMs) and a connection to the PS DDR memory.

The IOP instruction and data memory is implemented in a dual port Block RAM, with one port connected to the IOP, and the other to the ARM processor. This allows an executable binary file to be written from the ARM (i.e. the Pynq environment) to the IOP instruction memory. The IOP can also be reset from Pynq, allowing the IOP to start executing the new program.

The IOP data memory, either in local memory, or in DDR memory, can be used as a mailbox for communication and data exchanges between the Pynq environment and the IOP.

DDR memory buffer

DDR memory is managed by the Linux kernel running on the Cortex-A9s. Therefore, the IOP must first be allocated memory regions to access DRAM – this allocation is accomplished within pynq using the xlnk driver.

One benefit of using the pynq xlnk driver is that the physical address is also recorded. By having that mapping, Pynq applications can then send the physical address of that buffer to programmable logic as a pointer.

A single IOP, or multiple IOPs or other devices in an overlay could access this additional memory. For multiple IOPs accessing the same memory buffer, the user should determine a convention to ensure data is not corrupted.

For example, a mailbox could be defined inside a shared memory buffer with specific read and write locations for each IOP. The Python application would need to reserve the required memory buffer for this mailbox.

Shared Memory IOP1 IOP2
buffer(0) command (write) command (read)
buffer(1) acknowledge(read) acknowledge(write)
buffer(100->199) data (write) data(read)
buffer(200->299) data (read) data(write)

Remember that there is no memory protection, and nothing to stop an IOP writing to any location, so these read/write addresses should be managed by the IOP application designer.

DDR memory connect

The IOPs are connected to the DDR memory via the General Purpose AXI slave port. This is a direct connection, and no DMA is available, so is only suitable for simple data transfers from the IOP. I.e. The MicroBlaze can attempt to read or write the DDR as quickly as possible in a loop, but there is no support for bursts, or streaming data.

IOP Memory map

The local IOP memory is 64KB of shared data and instruction memory. Instruction memory for the IOP starts at address 0x0.

Pynq and the application running on the IOP can write to anywhere in the shared memory space. You should be careful not to write to the instruction memory unintentionally as this will corrupt the running application.

When building the MicroBlaze project, the compiler will only ensure that the application and allocated stack and heap fit into the BRAM and DDR if used. For communication between the ARM and the MicroBlaze, a part of the shared memory space must also be reserved within the MicroBlaze address space.

There is no memory management in the IOP. You must ensure the application, including stack and heap, do not overflow into the defined data area. Remember that declaring a stack and heap size only allocates space to the stack and heap. No boundary is created, so if sufficient space was not allocated, the stack and heap may overflow and corrupt your application.

If you need to modify the stack and heap for an application, the linker script can be found in the <project>/src/ directory.

It is recommended to follow the same convention for data communication between the two processors via a MAILBOX.

Instruction and data memory start 0x0
Instruction and data memory size 0xf000
Shared mailbox memory start 0xf000
Shared mailbox memory size 0x1000
Shared mailbox Command Address 0xfffc

These MAILBOX values for an IOP application are defined here:

<GitHub Repository>/Pynq-Z1/vivado/ip/arduino_io_switch_1.0/  \
<GitHub Repository>/Pynq-Z1/vivado/ip/pmod_io_switch_1.0/  \

The corresponding Python constants are defined here:

<GitHub Repository>/python/pynq/iop/

The following example explains how Python could initiate a read from a peripheral connected to an IOP.

  1. Python writes a read command (e.g. 0x3) to the mailbox command address (0xfffc).
  2. MicroBlaze application checks the command address, and reads and decodes the command.
  3. MicroBlaze performs a read from the peripheral and places the data at the mailbox base address (0xf000).
  4. MicroBlaze writes 0x0 to the mailbox command address (0xfffc) to confirm transaction is complete.
  5. Python checks the command address (0xfffc), and sees that the MicroBlaze has written 0x0, indicating the read is complete, and data is available.
  6. Python reads the data in the mailbox base address (0xf000), completing the read.

Running code on different IOPs

The MicroBlaze local BRAM memory is mapped into the MircoBlaze address space, and also to the ARM address space. These address spaces are independent, so the local memory will be located at different addresses in each memory space. Some example mappings are shown below to highlight the address translation between MicroBlaze and ARM’s memory spaces.

IOP Base Address MicroBlaze Address Space ARM Equivalent Address Space
0x4000_0000 0x0000_0000 - 0x0000_ffff 0x4000_0000 - 0x4000_ffff
0x4200_0000 0x0000_0000 - 0x0000_ffff 0x4200_0000 - 0x4200_ffff
0x4400_0000 0x0000_0000 - 0x0000_ffff 0x4400_0000 - 0x4400_ffff

Note that each MicroBlaze has the same range for its address space. However, the location of each IOPs address space in the ARM memory map is different for each IOP. As the address space is the same for each IOP, any binary compiled for one Pmod IOP will work on another Pmod IOP.

e.g. if IOP1 exists at 0x4000_0000, and IOP2 (a second instance of an IOP) exists at 0x4200_0000, the same binary can run on IOP1 by writing the binary from python to the 0x4000_0000 address space, and on IOP2 by writing to the 0x4200_0000.