This topic thread has been quiet for a while, so I thought I would try to liven it up.
I got my first maple (I now have 4 of them) a few weeks ago and when I read that LeafLabs plans a Cortex M3 and Xilinx Spartan 3E FPGA on the same board (Oak) I got very excited about the prospects. To speed the learning curve and to get the old juices flowing about possibilities, I now have a Nexys 2 FPGA development board from Digilent (yah, I know the ChipKit people) with a Spartan 3E 500K gate FPGA in a 320 pin package.
I have just started learning and playing with the development board using Xilinx's free WebPack toolkit and I think my experiences as I progress with this endeavor may be interesting and useful for thread readers.
First off, a bit about myself. I am a semi-retired systems engineer who lives in a cabin on a mountain in WV (Almost Heaven West Virginia). Not the greatest place for high speed internet access; I'm about 500 meters beyond the max length of a DSL connection, and that combined with an ISP service oversold and underpowered bandwidth wise from the local communications company, leads to iffy and unreliable DSL connection. I have been in the IT industry for more years than I care to remember (> 40) and still work part-time as a security consultant to one of the nation's largest defense contractors.
I started as a hardware field engineer on mainframes back in the late 1960s. Its amazing that the maple can probably outperform that original system (a Univac 494) which at the time ran the real-time reservation system for Australia's domestic airline, maybe many times over. If I still had the logic diagrams (and the patience), I could probably rebuilt that mainframe into my FPGA development board today with most of the capacity of the FPGA to spare. The capability and potential of what we have today is just incredible. Since those times I moved into software development, operating systems design, and eventually consulting.
Moving onto WebPack. Some of the earlier comments in this thread regarding vendor tool chains; the 3.8 gigabyte download and my internet connection; and MS Windows only install had me a little skeptical and nervous. I used a Mac development environment. I run Windows 7 in a Parallels VM for windows stuff and I realize there are some useful tools out there that will only run in windows. Anyway, the WebPack download and install from Xilinx was smooth and painless. I downloaded their latest version (at the time) 13.1. They have a download manager that handled without trouble the restarts caused by two lost connections during 3 hour download. The install was easy and smooth, and registering and licensing of WebPack (free perpetual license) made simple via interactions with the Xilinx License Manager website.
WebPack is a complex package of many different toolsets, but Xilinx has done a good job of knitting them all together using the ISE Navigator. Given the high version number, I don't imagine this has been a very easy or fast evolutionary process, but what they have today is pretty together and cohesive from a new user perspective. For the best perspective on the FPGA development process I recommend downloading the latest version of theSpartan3E_UserGuide from Xilinx. Starting at Chapter 13 "Using ISE Design Tools" is an amazing well-written (no engineer speak) and coherent walkthrough of the design and implementation process and how to accomplish it using Xilinx ISE tools, including WebPack.
I think that will do it for now; as I progress further, I will add updates. The feeling of accomplishment from installing something as simple as a 8 input XOR circuit, and watching the Led turn on and off correctly as I set/reset switches on the Dev board is incredible. Off now to learn more about VHDL :-)