Simplifying FPGA Reference Clocking

By Kyle Beckmeyer, Silicon Labs 

Field-Programable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) play a key role in numerous high-performance applications. They are widely used in data centers; industrial applications including broadcast video, print imaging, medical imaging, industrial control, cameras, conferencing and collaboration, digital signage, and many more. 

Unlike earlier generations, current FPGAs require multiple reference clocks with precise frequencies (Table 1) that are not simply integer divisions of some base value. High-end FPGAs are system-on-chip (SoC) devices with bundled processing cores such as the ARM Cortex that have their own set of reference clocks; or they include embedded serializer/deserializers (SERDES) that have stringent jitter requirements to meet end applications’ bit-error rate (BER) specifications. 

Component Typical Reference Clock (MHz) 
Processor/Network Processors 33.33, 66.66, 100, 125, 133.33 
Memory 100, 133, 166, 200, 266 
Fast Ethernet 25
Gigabit Ethernet 106.25
Fibre Channel 100
PCI Express 2.0 100
xDSL 35.328, 70.656 
SONET/SDH OC-3/STM-1 77.76 
SONET/SDH 0C-12/STM-4 155.52 
HD-SDI 74.1758, 74.25 
3G-SDI 148.3517, 148.5 
T1 1.544 
E1 2.048 

A New Approach is Needed for Clock Reference Architectures

Implementing a complex clock tree while still meeting severe space restrictions and a compressed time-to-market requires a new approach to clock generator design. The traditional architecture, shown below Figure 1(a), is based around a simple integer-N phase-locked loop (PLL) that generates a voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) output at a multiple of the desired frequency; the VCO feeds a divide-by-R block that produces the final output. 

Figure 1: A comparison of (a) the traditional PLL and (b) the MultiSynth clock generation architectures 

In this architecture, the output clock frequency is a function of the input clock frequency and the PLL divider values as shown: 

A traditional single PLL-based architecture is suitable for simple integer clock multiplication of reference inputs or clock generation from a crystal input. However, high-end FPGAs require multiple non-integer-related frequencies: the crystal frequency must be changed to support each unique frequency plan. The designer must use one or more custom crystals and multiple clock generator ICs to generate the required set of frequencies, increasing the cost, complexity and power consumption of the overall solution. 

Silicon Labs’ patented MultiSynthTM fractional divider architecture, shown in Figure 1(b), solves this problem. The MultiSynth architecture replaces the divide-by-R block in Figure 1(a) with a fractional-N divider that switches seamlessly between the two closest integer divider values to produce the exact output clock frequency with zero ppm error.

This process generates phase error: to eliminate it, the MultiSynth block calculates the relative phase difference between the fractional-N divider clock and the desired output clock and dynamically adjusts the phase to match the ideal clock waveform.

This technique makes it possible to generate any output clock frequency without sacrificing jitter performance. 

Silicon Labs Timing Solutions 

The Multisynth architecture is put to good use in Silicon Lab’s portfolio of timing solutions, which includes the industry’s broadest portfolio of crystal oscillator, clock generator, clock buffer, and jitter attenuator families. 

  Oscillators Clock Gens JA CLocks
<100fs RMS  Si54x  Si5391 Si539x
100-200fs RMS    Si534 1/0 Si534x
200-500fs RMS  Si53x Si5332 Si532x
500-800fs RMS 



>1ps RMS    Si5351/0  

Clock generators or jitter-attenuating clocks can supply up to 12 outputs with a maximum frequency of 1028 MHz and a typical jitter as low as 69 fs RMS. A range of output types is supported, including LVPECL, LVDS, HCSL, CML, and LVCMOS.

The table above shows an overview of the portfolio organized by jitter performance level: the parts at the top offer the highest performance solutions, targeting the highest end applications with the most stringent requirements. 

Integrated LDOs Reduce Noise and Improve Performance 

In addition to the MultiSynth architecture, clock generators include multiple features that contribute to low jitter and save system cost. For example, noise on the power supply is a significant problem in high-performance clock devices. It affects the performance in two ways:

  1. It adds noise to the clock signal voltage and interna lvoltage references. Since crossing-point times are referenced to an internally-generated threshold voltage, this voltage noise will appear in the output as a timing error.
  2. The power-supply noise is modulated by the internal oscillator in the PLL and contributes to phase noise.

Power supplies based on switching topologies are the preferred choice in high-current, low-voltage designs because they are highly efficient. Unfortunately, they also generate significant noise, so FPGA system designers must add low-noise low-dropout (LDO) linear regulators, ferrite beads, and numerous filter capacitors to remove power-supply noise before it reaches the clock generator. This adds significant cost and increases the board size. 

The power supply to the output buffer circuits are regulated by independent internal LDOs that isolate the clock output buffer circuit from the noise on the power supply pins. The power supplies to internal digital, input buffer and analog circuitry also have independent internal voltage regulator circuits that isolate the internal oscillator from external power-supply noise.

The power-supply noise rejection (PSNR) figure is the key datasheet parameter: the newest devices such as the Si5341A and the Si5332, discussed below, have a PSNR of -100 dBc at 25kHz and -91 dBc at 1 MHz.

As a result, these devices require only a pair of filter capacitors on each power pin, drastically decreasing the system cost and solution size. The Si5332, for example, requires only 18 capacitors; a competing device requires LDOs, capacitors, ferrite beads, diodes and resistors - more than 100 additional components.

In conjunction with the timing solutions products, Silicon Labs offers several software tools that help customers develop quick-turn, customized solutions.

ClockBuilder Pro (CBPro) is a software tool that simplifies the task of getting from a clock-tree specification to an orderable part. CBPro supports Silicon Labs’ Si539x, Si5121x, Si5350/1, Si5338, Si5332, Si534x, Si538x, and Si539x clock generators and jitter attenuators.

The tool uses a step-by-step GUI format that includes more than 175 clock design rules to reduce design and debug time. A built-in clock placement wizard assigns individual clocks to specific outputs to minimize the potential for crosstalk. After configuring the part, customized performance reports complete with phase-noise plots are immediately available.

The software supports direct connection to all related EVBs and the CBPro Field Programmer. CBPro also supports in-system programming, allowing a system host to reconfigure the device while it is on the system board.

The CBPro software package is freely available for download. It includes the application executable file, Release notes, CLI (Command Line Interface) documentation, and general training information.

Other software tools include a phase noise-to-jitter calculator that helps translate FPGA phase noise specifications into jitter requirements. 

Example of a Typical Design Flow 

Developing a reference clock design consists of the following steps:

  1. Define the clock tree: the frequencies, jitter performance, outputsignal levels, and other parameters related to the timing requirements.
  2. Based on that set of requirements, select the clock generator that aligns with the jitter performance requirement and number of outputs.
  3. Use ClockBuilder Pro to input the clock tree requirements and create a configuration file
  4. ClockBuilder Pro will assign a unique/custom partnumber (-xxxxxxsuffix) corresponding to the configuration file developed. It will also provide a datasheet addendum to the customer.
  5. The part number with its associated configuration file is automatically generated in the Silicon Labs backend system.
  6. Samples or production-quantity parts can be ordered immediately; these are shipped within 2 weeks of the order being received. 

Design Example with Intel Stratix 10 

Here is a design example using the default frequencies in the Intel® Stratix® 10 GX FPGA Development Kit. The Stratix 10 is Intel’s highest performance FPGA family; the Stratix 10 GX achieves up to 10 TFLOPS with transceiver support up to 2.8 Gbps.

There are fifteen reference clocks called out in the Stratix Development kit, shown in the table below. These range from 50 MHz to 644.53125 MHz and fulfill a variety of roles: system clocks for the Stratix 10 FPGA and the MAX V CPLD (Complex Programmable Logic Device, a lower-cost, simpler FPGA variant); and reference clocks for common communication standards such as Ethernet, DisplayPort, and the high-speed transceivers. 

Device Clock Frequency (MHz) Level Function
Si5341A  RFCLKI  155.52 LVDS Transceiver ref. clock Bank 1D 
Si5341A  REFCLK_QSFP11  644.53125 LVDS QSFP ref. clock 
Si5341A  REFCLK_DP  135 LVDS DisplayPort ref. clock 
Si5341A  REFCLK4  156.25 LVDS Transceiver ref. clock Bank 4E 
Si5341A  REFCLK_FMCA  625 LVDS FMC ref. clock 
Si5341A  FPGA_OSC_CLK1  125 LVCMOS FPGA configuration clock 
Si5341A  CLK_ENET  125 LVDS Ethernet clock 
Si5341A  MAXV_OSC_CLK1  125 LVCMOS MAX V CPLD clock 
Si5332   CLK_MAXV_50M  50 LVCMOS MAX V CPLD clock 
Si5332   CLK_FPGA_50M  50 LVCMOS FPGA clock 
Si5332   PCIE_OB_REFCLK  100 LVDS Onboard PCIe ref. clk 
Si5332   CLK_HILO  133 LVDS HiLo memory clock 
Si5332   CLK_FPGA_B3L  100 LVDS FPGA clock Bank 3L 
Si5332   REFCLK_SDI  148.5 LVDS SDI ref. clock 

These clocks can be supplied by only two Silicon Labs clock generators, as shown below: 

Figure 2: Two Silicon Labs clock generators can supply all default clocks for the Intel Stratix 10 Development Kit 

The Si5341A and Si5332 are used in this design. Why were these parts selected?

  • They meet the maximum jitter performance requirements in the Intel Stratix FPGA
    specification for all reference clocks, with sufficient margin.
  • They consolidate the clock frequencies into only two clock generators. This minimizes
    PCB footprint and number of components, reducing cost.
  • They provide additional features like output enable pins, spread spectrum for EMI
    reduction, frequency control/selection

The Si5341 (figure 6) provides ten outputs: frequencies range from 100 Hz – 1028 MHz for differential outputs or 100 Hz – 250 MHz for LVCMOS levels with jitter of only 90 fs RMS. Either a crystal or an external differential input can supply the input frequency.

The outputs are configurable to meet LVDS, LPECL, LVCMOS, CML, and HCSL specifications. 

Figure 3: The Si5341 generates ten independent reference clocks 

The remaining five outputs are courtesy of the Si5332. This device comes with six, eight, or twelve outputs. The output clocks can reach up to 333.33 MHz differential and 170 MHz LVCMOS with phase jitter as low as 175 fs RMS, more than enough for the application. The Si5332 is also available with an embedded crystal that further reduces cost and size. 


Designing a reference clock tree for a high-performance FPGA design is an exacting task, but Silicon Labs’ portfolio of clock generators offers a flexible and powerful way to meet these stringent requirements. Together with the ClockBuilder Pro software tool, designers can now develop an optimum solution and quickly evaluate sample parts. 

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