What is a FIFO in an FPGA

How FIFO buffers are used to transfer data and cross clock domains

The acronym FIFO stands for First In First Out. FIFOs are used everywhere in FPGA and ASIC designs, they are one of the basic building blocks. And they are very handy! FIFOs can be used for any of these purposes:

A FIFO can be thought of a one-way tunnel that cars can drive through. At the end of the tunnel is a toll with a gate. Once the gate opens, the car can leave the tunnel. If that gate never opens and more cars keep entering the tunnel, eventually the tunnel will fill up with cars. This is called FIFO Overflow and in general it's not a good thing. How deep the FIFO is can be thought of as the length of the tunnel. The deeper the FIFO, the more data can fit into it before it overflows. FIFOs also have a width, which represents the width of the data (in number of bits) that enters the FIFO. Below is an image of the basic interface of any FIFO. These signals will always be found when you look at any FIFO. Often there are more signals that add additional features, such as a count of the number of words in the FIFO. See the figure below:

Basic Interface Signals of a FIFO

The FIFO can be divided up into the write half and the read half. The write half has the signals Write Enable, Write Data, and FIFO Full. The designer should never write to a full FIFO! Always check the FIFO Full flag to make sure there's room to write another piece of data, otherwise you will lose that data.

The read half has the signals Read Enable, Read Data, and FIFO Empty. I find it easier when designing code to separate the write-code in one file and the read-code in another file, just to be careful. The designer should never read from an empty FIFO! As long as you obey these two basic rules you and FIFOs will get along nicely. I'll restate them again because they're just that important.

The two rules of FIFOs:

  1. Never write to a full FIFO (overflow)
  2. Never read from an empty FIFO (underflow)

FIFOs themselves can be made up of dedicated pieces of logic inside your FPGA or ASIC or they can be created from Flip-Flops (distributed registers). Which one of these two the synthesis tools will use is entirely dependent on the FPGA vendor that you are using and how you structure your code. Just know that when you use the dedicated pieces of logic they have better performance than having a register-based FIFO. I created an example of a register-based FIFO in VHDL that comes with a fully functional testbench.

FIFOs are one of the basic building blocks for FPGA designers and are critically important to understand and use correctly!