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Has the time of the FPGA arrived?

In 2014, we talked about FPGAs and Bitcoin mining – oh, that’s so last year darling?! Well, actually, they’re still very relevant; in fact, more so than ever. FPGAs are now making it into the mainstream; a recent Register article shows an image of Intel Broadwell Xeon with a built FPGA, which is due out later this year.

How can you take advantage of FPGAs now? Well, nothing worth doing is ever easy – you will have to program your FPGA and that will mean that you have to develop your own applications, and programming an FPGA does take some time.

A potentially easier alternative is to buy an appliance with the design of the FPGA ready to download on to the system. I can see that FPGAs will be a good fit for the appliance market and, specifically, users that only run a single application. How well will it be received in the general HPC arena where multiple users are generally scheduled on to a system? Is there a market for such appliances? The obvious answer must be yes too – I can foresee usage in the banking, options trading and weather modelling sectors, and for off-loading encryption, FFTs and, in fact, anywhere a GPU can be used. I think that the only real concern is the ability to run different applications in a timely manner.

A great aid in the take up of FPGAs is undoubtedly the adoption of OpenCL (the champion of the underdog processor/accelerator!). OpenCL enables developers to abstract away from the HDL language that FPGA programmers have had to program with previously, and use more familiar development tools such as C, C++ etc. As Intel has promised new libraries, hopefully, it will open up the platform to a wider variety of developers.

Will the benefits of FPGAs outweigh the limitations, certainly Intel think so! What’s your view? Leave me a comment below.

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