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SDRAM - A simple controller

Our SDRAM controller has the following features:

The most uncommon feature of the controller might be the last one. SDRAMs are a single-port memories, but FPGAs greatly benefit from having access to dual-port memories (like blockrams), so we felt it was a nice feature to have.

Controller signals

Here's a simplistic view of our SDRAM controller.

The first three signals on the left are used by the writing agent ("write request", followed by "write address" and "write data"). Then come below the three signals for the reading agent. On the right, the controller drives the SDRAM signals. To put things in perspective, here's a view of a typical FPGA system using our SDRAM controller.

Now our controller makes the SDRAM appear as a dual-port memory. But an SDRAM is really a single-port memory, so our controller has to play a trick. If our controller gets two requests simultaneously, either it has to stall one agent, or record their requests and execute them later. Our controller opts for the first strategy. So we added "grant" signals: an agent can assert a request at any time but the controller has the authority to grant the request or not. If a request is denied, keep asking, it will be granted eventually.

One last complication with SDRAMs comes from the fact that the data returned from read requests is delayed (called the CAS latency in SDRAM datasheets). The controller might also add a few clocks of latency. So even though the controller might grant a read request right away, the matching data is available only a fixed number of clocks later. For convenience, we added a "data valid" signal that is asserted when data is really available.

State machine

Our SDRAM controller's heart is a state machine. The controller waits for a request (read or write), opens the matching bank/row, issue read or write commands (for as long as the active agent requests them in the active row), and finally closes the row.

With this scheme, there is only one bank active at a time. Advanced SDRAM controllers would allow multiples banks active simultaneously, but we decided to keep things simple.

Now, opening and closing rows takes time. For example, our SDRAM datasheet provides these numbers:

So if we run our SDRAM at 100MHz, the clock period is 10ns and we need to add some empty clock cycles (called NOP) in our state machine.
Also refresh cycles are needed if the read agent cannot guarantee opening each row regularly.

The state machine now looks a bit more complicated.

Finally, the number of NOP cycles may need to be adjusted. For example, at 100MHz and with tRP = 21ns, we actually need two NOP cycles after precharge (gives us 30ns before the next activate).


The SDRAM has some programmable settings (like the CAS latency), so there is a "MODE" register that needs to be initialized after power-up. A "LOAD MODE" command is used for that purpose. The SDRAM initialization could be added in the controller, or in a separate step before the controller is run.

The code

The heart of our controller is shown below.
To get the best possible IO timing, all the SDRAM control signals are registered so that there is no combinatorial logic signal going outside the FPGA.

always @(posedge clk)  // state machine
    2'h0: begin
    	if(RdReq | WrReq) begin  // is there a read or write request?
    		SDRAM_CMD <= SDRAM_CMD_ACTIVE;  // if so, open
    		SDRAM_BA <= Addr[19];  // this bank
    		SDRAM_A <= Addr[18:8];  // this row
    		SDRAM_DQM <= 2'b11;
    		state <= 2'h1;
    		SDRAM_CMD <= SDRAM_CMD_NOP;  // otherwise stay idle
    		SDRAM_BA <= 0;
    		SDRAM_A <= 0;
    		SDRAM_DQM <= 2'b11;
    		state <= 2'h0;
    2'h1: begin
    	SDRAM_BA <= AddrR[19];
    	SDRAM_A[9:0] <= {2'b00, AddrR[7:0]};  // column
    	SDRAM_A[10] <= 1'b0;  // no auto-precharge
    	SDRAM_DQM <= 2'b00;
    	state <= (ReadSelected ? RdReq : WrReq) & SameRowAndBank ? 2'h1 : 2'h2;
    2'h2: begin
    	SDRAM_CMD <= SDRAM_CMD_PRECHARGE;  // close the row when we're done with it
    	SDRAM_BA <= 0;
    	SDRAM_A <= 11'b100_0000_0000;  // all banks precharge
    	SDRAM_DQM <= 2'b11;
    	state <= 2'h0;

The complete demo code is available here. It is functional but since this is educational, we kept it as simple as possible by removing non-essential features. Check the comments in the code for the limitations and requirements.

Example of use

An SDRAM is often used in video cards, as lots of memory is required to store the graphics. It works like that: the computer's CPU sends the graphic data to the video card. The card uses an SDRAM to store the data, and a controller in the card reads periodically the memory to send the data to the display. The data (in the SDRAM) is refreshed automatically in the process.

We created such basic system using a Xylo-EM board as part of our validation process. The fact that the SDRAM controller is dual-ported makes the design straightforward (the PC/FX2 is the writing agent, and the video controller is the reading agent).