Category Archives: News Shmews

Forbes reports on FPGA cluster computing

Andy Greenberg at Forbes Magazine has featured FPGA cluster computing in an article titled A Compact Code-Breaking Powerhouse. It’s a good article, check it out.


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Partial reconfiguration – it’s about time

Altera today announced that its next-generation, 28nm devices will support partial reconfiguration. This means that Altera FPGA users will now be able to update small portions of an FPGA device, rather than having to re-synthesize, re-map and reprogram the entire device every time the application changes.

Xilinx has supported this feature for quite a few years, but has never made it a mainstream, supported feature of their ISE Design Suite development tools. However, in a recent email update to its customers, Xilinx announced with almost no fanfare that, in version 12 of the Xilinx tools, this important capability would finally be given its proper status as a supported feature. Perhaps the marketing department at Xilinx heard rumors coming from the other side of San Jose?

Corporate intrigue aside, this is an important piece of news. Why? Because software application developers first investigating FPGAs are surprised – even shocked – to learn how long the iteration times are for programming and debugging FPGA applications. And the larger the FPGA is, the worse the problem becomes.

For most software developers, being faced with the equivalent of a two, three, or even eight hour iteration time for compile-link-test is completely unacceptable, no matter how much potential increase in performance there may be.

And if, at the end of that long iteration time all the programmer has is a non-working, difficult-to-debug bitmap and a thousand-lines long report filled with hardware-esque warning messages? Then forget it. They might as well go use GPUs and CUDA.

So, why has it taken so long for this seemingly obvious feature to become mainstream? One can only assume that Xilinx and Altera management, their chip architects, and perhaps even their tools developers are hardware engineers first, and software engineers second. Perhaps they can only think of their devices as the poor-man’s ASIC. And their tools as a poor-man’s EDA.

Reliable, vendor-supported partial reconfiguration, including dynamic run-time reconfiguration, has the potential to solve so many problems for software application developers, and to broaden the market for FPGAs.


Partial reconfiguration allows developers to iteratively recompile, re-synthesize, re-map and re-test a specific portion of the FPGA in just a few minutes, rather than a few hours. This in itself is a huge benefit. Instead of having to set up elaborate, hardware-oriented simulations to verify correct behavior before hitting that compile button, you can just try it out, again and again, in the same way you would when developing software. Indeed, this method of design was predominant for FPGAs in the 1980s and early 1990s. But as device densities have grown, iterative design-and-test methods have become impractical. That was good for the hardware simulator business, but bad for software developers.

Run-time reconfiguration allows certain parts of the FPGA to remain intact and functioning, for example the I/O processing, while other parts are being updated on-the-fly. Need to change the filtering of a video signal to respond to a change in resolution? Wham, it’s done, and so fast the viewer doesn’t even see a flicker. Want to change the FPGA’s function without causing a system reboot? How about leaving the PCIe endpoint alone and just changing the core algorithm?

Dynamic reconfiguration can increase the effective size of an FPGA. Loading of partial bitmaps at run-time allows the capacity of these devices to grow in the dimension of time. If you don’t need all the hardware capabilities you have programmed into your FPGA all the time, then use dynamic reconfiguration to swap hardware modules in and out as needed. Use reconfiguration to do more, with less.

Partial reconfiguration opens up new FPGA markets. Using partial reconfiguration, the vendors of FPGA-based platforms for specific types of applications – for financial transaction processing and automated trading, for example – could provide a “minimally programmable embedded system” in which most of the FPGA logic is pre-designed, pre-optimized and locked down, while a small portion in the middle is left available for end-user customization. This potentially opens up whole new application domains that were previously not available for FPGAs; applications in which the platform vendor and the end user both have unique domain knowledge, and have their own critical IP to protect.

Again, these capabilities are not really new; the Xilinx partial reconfiguration features have been used successfully, for years, in domains such as software-defined radio. What’s changing is that partial reconfiguration is finally becoming officially supported. With uncertainties about its future and its supportability reduced, software and platform vendors will now begin using these features to enable new programming, debugging and operating features into their own products.

It’s about time.


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Please pass the dot plots

In the past year there has been an increased level of skepticism regarding FPGAs as computing devices. Large amounts of ink of been spilled regarding the emergence of GPUs as general-purpose computing platforms. NVIDIA’s Tesla is racking up high benchmark scores in domains that include computational finance, scientific computing, geophysics and many others.

Nonetheless, there are certain domains in which FPGAs are clear winners over GPUs, particularly when power consumption is factored into the results. Two of these domains are crypto-analysis (code cracking) and bioinformatics.

The CHREC group at the University of Florida, and Pico Computing of Seattle, have both recently announced benchmark results for DNA sequencing algorithms. Both groups used FPGA clusters to perform massively parallel computations and to accelerate the comparing and scoring of DNA base pairs by orders of magnitude.

The Florida group, led by Dr. Alan George, implemented a Smith-Waterman sequencing algorithm on a cluster of 96 Altera high-capacity FPGA devices, using PCI Express FPGA cards supplied by GiDEL.

The Novo-G cluster used for this project consists of 16 Linux servers, each housing a quad-FPGA accelerator board from GiDEL. According to the CHREC team, Novo-G’s performance was compared with an optimized software implementation executed on a single 64-bit, 2.4GHz AMD Opteron core. A speedup of 40,849X was observed. The implication is that a bioinformatics calculation that would take days to run on a single desktop workstation or server would require just seconds to complete using the Novo-G FPGA cluster.

In Seattle, Pico Computing implemented a similar algorithm that performs sequence analysis and scoring to create a 2-dimensional figure called a dot plot. The Pico team reported that they had achieved greater than 5000X acceleration of their algorithm, using a cluster of 112 Xilinx Spartan-3 FPGA devices. The Pico cluster consumed less than 300 Watts of power, with all FPGAs fitting comfortably into a single 4U server chassis.

Perhaps more interesting about the Pico Computing project was how it was developed. Greg Edvenson of Pico used a single FPGA device during initial algorithm development. The FPGA was encapsulated in a Pico Computing E-17 card attached directly to Greg’s laptop computer via an ExpressCard interface. After the algorithm was tested and working as a single hardware process, Edvenson then scaled up and replicated the algorithm for deployment on the FPGA cluster. Greg used C-to-FPGA tools provided by Impulse Accelerated Technologies during the development of the algorithms, reducing the need to write low-level HDL code.

In summary, bioinformatics is one application domain in which FPGA acceleration offers clear and compelling benefits. And as well, there are multiple FPGA cluster approaches that can be taken to meet the needs of the application, and to meet the constraints of budget and power consumption.

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Dirty words and wardrobe malfunctions

Saving the world, one $#&^! FPGA at a time…

School system to use Algolith Profanity Cleaner and Delay System for live broadcasts

Okay, so maybe it was a slow news day when this got picked up. But digging deeper, what Algolith is offering is a reconfigurable, FPGA-based delay and filtering application for audio and video.

In their literature, Algolith is promoting the concept of One Card, One Price, More Choices. This is fundamentally what reconfigurable hardware is all about, and it makes sense for both the customer and for Algolith.

Why? Because video filtering and other broadcast video applications require hardware solutions, but don’t have static requirements. What’s needed for broadcasting, say, the Superbowl with 50 or more HD cameras, chaotic real-time action and thousands of opportunities for verbal and visual naughtiness, is probably quite different than the requirements for broadcasting a heathcare town meeting with a few unruly seniors.

How does reconfigurable hardware come in? A vendor such as Algolith can design and produce a hardware based solution, such as an HD-compatible video card, that has at its core one or more FPGAs. Some of the logic in these FPGAs is fixed and rarely updated, handling those parts of video processing that don’t change. Interfacing with video and network I/O devices, for example. Other parts of the video processing, however, are reconfigurable, allowing new types of clever delay filtering and other video gymnastics to be performed by the customer. Want to fuzz out someone’s unfortunate wardrobe problems with one mouse click, and track the offending [insert noun here] even as it moves around the scene? How about hiding all those annoying non-sponsor brand logos? Hey, somebody’s got to keep the viewers safe.

I don’t know if Algolith offers such high-zoot features in its video products, but these sorts of capabilities are certainly possible to implement in FPGAs today.

From a marketing perspective, the really attractive thing about reconfigurable hardware is the ability for a company like Algolith to become more than a hardware vendor – which is not a particularly scalable business – into a vendor of IP and services that use their reconfigurable hardware product as a platform for value-added options and reconfigurable firmware upgrades. And that’s a way $&@%*%! better business to be in.

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FPGA-accelerated financial analytics get real

Automated trading and near-real-time financial analytics have been hot topics for some years now. Large organizations such as Bank of America deploy massive compute clusters to do such things as calculate the present value of options, or to model credit derivatives, in a virtual arms race to make trades with ever-higher levels of accuracy and ever-lower latencies. The banks and hedge funds that win this race each day have the potential to make millions or billions of dollars in extra profits. Vast amounts of power are consumed to drive the world’s most advanced supercomputers in a constant quest to produce, well, nothing at all… Just information used to move wealth from one global pants-pocket to another.

And all in the pursuit of market efficiency, of course. Hopefully all this money-shuffling is good for my meager retirement portfolio.

Editorializing aside, there has been a lot of buzz about the role of accelerators, including FPGAs, in financial applications. XtremeData this week generated some press regarding their new accelerated database for analytics. Their solution is attractive because it combines an FPGA module with an industry-standard HP Proliant server to accelerate specific algorithms (in this case SQL queries) by 15X over software-only equivalents.

As an industry, we need more turnkey solutions that highlight the benefits of FPGA acceleration. With enough such applications out there, the demand for programming and hardware platform solutions for other, possibly unrelated applications will increase.

Assuming, of course, all this financial alchemy doesn’t once again turn gold into lead.

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An open letter to DeepChip readers

DeepChip? What’s that?

DeepChip is the website of John Cooley and home of the perennially unofficial and irreverent ESNUG (East Coast Synopsys Users Group). DeepChip has evolved over the years – almost two decades now – into a highly popular site for discussing design methods and tools of all flavors, with a particular focus on ASIC and, to a lesser extent, FPGA hardware design.

In recent weeks and months there have been a flurry of comments on DeepChip from vendors of C-to-FPGA tools, and from users of those tools, culminating with a long-overdue acknowledgement from John that such tools really are gaining traction. See “I Sense A Tremor In The Force”.

I found the dialogue somewhat heartening; it’s good to see the conservative world of ASIC design finally starting to embrace these tools. But I also found the theme of the whole debate – that these tools are new, untested and exotic – a little amusing. And so, during the week of the Design Automation Conference, here is my open letter to the DeepChip community:

Subject: C-to-FPGA Users: Who Are These People?

Here are some perspectives on the recent C-to-hardware debates….

Are there actual users of this stuff? Absolutely. The real question is, who are these people?

C-to-hardware tools are not yet common among traditional hardware designers. Yes, there are successful ASIC tapeouts and some scattered successes in, for example, consumer video processing on FPGAs. We are hearing more of these successes every year. But for the vast majority of hardware designers, RTL methods using VHDL and Verilog are still the preferred route. Particularly in a downturn, what project leader wants to risk their career on a new design method?

The move to higher level methods of design will happen; it’s just a matter of time, and of getting a critical mass of success stories with clearly stated benefits. We’ve seen this before, by the way… VHDL and Verilog did not take over from schematics overnight, and that move was less of a leap of abstraction than the current push from RTL into ESL.

So where is the action in C-to-hardware?

It’s on the software side of the world. It’s in embedded systems for defense and aerospace, it’s in reconfigurable computing research groups. it’s in financial computing and life sciences. It’s in places that do not have significant hardware development expertise. It’s in places where is not widely read, and where “EDA” and “ESL” have little or no meaning.

I can state emphatically that C-to-FPGA tools really do work. Impulse C, for example, has users worldwide who are applying their C programming skills to create hardware coprocessors for embedded systems-on-FPGA, or to move processing intensive algorithms into dedicated FPGA logic, using the newest FPGA-accelerated computing platforms.

Are these tools perfect? By no means. Any user of Impulse C would report similar frustrations – but also the productivity benefits – that we’ve seen regarding other C-to-hardware tools. All of these tools have their peculiarities, and all require a certain amount of C-language refactoring in order to achieve acceptable performance. All of these tools require “best practices” training. However, I believe all of our tools have now matured to the point where that level of refactoring can be performed by a skilled software programmer, with little or no prior knowledge of RTL.

To summarize… I believe we are nearing a point at which traditional hardware engineers will begin moving en-masse to higher-level tools, including C-to-hardware. There will finally be a payoff for the ESL vendors that have been pushing these technologies forward, and a bigger payoff in productivity for the development teams that take the leap and use ESL for complex systems. But I also believe the bigger, unreported story is that a new generation of FPGA programmers is emerging, blurring the distinction between hardware and software for embedded and high performance computing systems.

David Pellerin, CEO
Impulse Accelerated Technologies


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CSwitch closes its doors

On the heels of similar shutdowns last year of Mathstar and Ambric, the news broke earlier this month that reconfigurable device startup CSwitch has now shut down, the apparent victim of still-frozen capital markets.

This is unfortunate, a setback for reconfigurable computing overall. But it’s not surprising given the history of new and exotic reconfigurable devices. I still believe that, somewhere out there, there is a reconfigurable device architecture that can find its market. But as I’ve opined before, such a device needs to be programmable using higher-level methods, using established software or hardware programming languages. If I were starting a programmable device company – which I wouldn’t, by the way, because I’m not rich enough, smart enough, or maybe not dumb enough – I would start with a target application first, then decide how to program that application. And then… only then… I would have some very smart people design a programmable hardware device and a set of design tools and libraries that are optimized for that application, and that support that programming method.

There is a very good series of articles covering this topic in EE Times: See FPGA Startup Crunch.

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