A field-programmable gate array (FPGA) is an integrated circuit designed to be configured by a customer or a designer after manufacturing – hence "field-programmable". The FPGA configuration is generally specified using a hardware description language (HDL), similar to that used for an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC). (Circuit diagrams were previously used to specify the configuration, as they were for ASICs, but this is increasingly rare.)

FPGAs contain an array of programmable logic blocks, and a hierarchy of reconfigurable interconnects that allow the blocks to be "wired together", like many logic gates that can be inter-wired in different configurations. Logic blocks can be configured to perform complex combinational functions, or merely simple logic gates like AND and XOR. In most FPGAs, logic blocks also include memory elements

Complex programmable logic devices (CPLD)

The primary differences between CPLDs (complex programmable logic devices) and FPGAs are architectural. A CPLD has a somewhat restrictive structure consisting of one or more programmable sum-of-products logic arrays feeding a relatively small number of clocked registers. The result of this is less flexibility, with the advantage of more predictable timing delays and a higher logic-to-interconnect ratio. The FPGA architectures, on the other hand, are dominated by interconnect. This makes them far more flexible (in terms of the range of designs that are practical for implementation within them) but also far more complex to design for.

In practice, the distinction between FPGAs and CPLDs is often one of size as FPGAs are usually much larger in terms of resources than CPLDs. Typically only FPGAs contain more complex embedded functions such as adders, multipliers, memory, and serdes. Another common distinction is that CPLDs contain embedded flash to store their configuration while FPGAs usually, but not always, require external nonvolatile memory.

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