John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · Monday 23 February 2004
FPGAs Offer New Hardware Capabilities
If you read my article on Kuro5hin yesterday you know that the rising star of computer chess, Hydra, gets its power from a field programmable gate array (FPGA) daughter card. What are these mysterious devices? These are programmable logic boards like old-fashioned PROMs on a large scale. Kryten Droid (nice name) has written a comparative summary of programmable logic architectures and you can find a general description of FPGAs at the programable logic jump station web site. Current high-end FPGAs have millions of gates; this is enough to code even the largest computer programs. What this means is that you can create an IC that is dedicated to running a particular computer program or suite of programs for incredible performance. Since the device uses SRAM its memory access is orders of magnitudes faster than that of an ordinary computer.

Until recently FPGAs were exclusively the domain of chip designers to prototype new ICs or were used in shadowy military applications. With falling prices FPGAs are becoming more accessible for ordinary commercial applications. The leading companies are Xilinx and Altera. A good summary of all the common FPGAs. Many of these devices along with development kits can be had for a few thousand dollars. This brings performance computing into reach for a wide variety of applications.

FPGAs are usually programmed using either Verilog or VHDL, specialized languages for logic programming. Verilog is similar to C and VHDL is similar to ADA (reflecting the military heritage of the technology). These languages have progressed to the point where regular high-level programs can be more or less ported directly to an FPGA board.

If the costs of these devices continues to decrease I predict that we may see a new hybrid device: the FPGA computer. Imagine a computer in which the entire operating system, BIOS and some key drivers were built into a slotted daughter board along with the CPU. This would result in two key gains: (1) the computer would boot instantly, (2) the overall performance would be phenomenally greater. For example, by using such a technology the computer might run a hundred times faster or more than a traditional architecture computer with the same CPU. You could also use the same approach to integrate video processing right into slotted board. This would put the video card vendors out of business. Not only that video processing speed could become phenomenal because throughput would be thousands of times faster.

This technology could fundamentally change the way PCs are built. You heard it here first, 23 February 2004.

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