FPGA companies launch alliance to design supercomputers

EDINBURGH, U.K., 25 May 2005. A consortium of computer researchers today launched the FPGA High Performance Computing Alliance (FHPCA). The group includes technology companies and academics who will work together over the next two years to design and build a 64-node, FPGA-based super computer, capable of achieving processing speeds in excess of 1 Teraflop.

The new supercomputer, which will be the most powerful of its type in the world, will be owned and operated by the world-renowned EPCC (Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre) at the University of Edinburgh. Visiting researchers will be able to arrange access to the FHPCA system for three-month research programs via the EPPC, during which time they will be supported by members of the Alliance to port their applications to the system.

The computer will be built using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology from alliance members. To demonstrate the system's power and flexibility, the alliance will then select and port three existing super computer applications from science and industry. Those applications will be selected in June 2005.

Group members include:
· Xilinx, of San Jose, Calif.,
· Nallatech, of Edinburgh, Scotland,
· the Institute for System Level Integration (ISLI), at the Alba Centre in Livingston, U.K.,
· the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC) at the University of Edinburgh,
· Alpha Data, also of Edinburgh, and
· Algotronix, also of Edinburgh.

Together, they raised a 3.6 million-pound budget for the alliance, including 1.345 million pounds from Scottish Enterprise.

"For many scientists and engineers, who would love to have access to the computing power that this technology can provide, FPGA computing is either unknown or inaccessible, simply because the tools and techniques to develop these systems are so specialized," said Allan Cantle, CEO of Nallatech.

"FPGA computing is today where conventional microprocessor-based computing was 15 years ago. The potential exists to deliver unprecedented computational capacity, using less power in a smaller space, however to unleash that potential the industry needs to develop the means to give users low risk access to that power. Working with the FHPCA will help industry to begin the process of opening up the technology to a wider range of users and hence applications through education, the development of standardized tools and providing a platform for large-scale demonstrations."

The alliance will use solely FPGA processors because they offer so much power. FPGA-based computing is currently used for high-performance applications such as military signal processing, high-speed machine vision, and bioinformatics.

The processing demands of these tasks are difficult to meet using conventional microprocessor-based technology. But FPGA-based computers are by their nature massively parallel, performing many calculations per clock cycle and achieving very high data throughput. One reason is that FPGA chips are typically able to dedicate many more pins to Input/Output than a microprocessor.

The alliance also has educational goals. It will fund six scholarships and will develop "tool kits" for FPGA-based high performance computing, together with a body of intellectual property for license.

Engineers have few standards today for developing FPGA-based computer systems, so by collaborating in this development the technology partners expect to be able to increase the interoperability and accessibility of their technology to engineers and scientists. So Alliance partners will also appoint a "technology translator" to act as a bridge between the technology experts and the application community.

"The use of FPGAs in high performance computing brings superior performance for many important classes of problems," said Patrick Lysaght, senior director of Xilinx Research Labs and the Xilinx University Program.

"The key to this improvement is to use arrays of FPGAs instead of older architectures based on sequential computers. The natural concurrency of the algorithms can be best exploited by mapping them to FPGAs with all the advantages of highly specialized data paths, customized memory interfaces and optimized interconnection topologies. The tremendous flexibility of Xilinx FPGAs makes it possible to create a custom computing environment for each class of problem."

Malachy Devlin, the chief technology officer of Nallatech, said, "FPGAs have continuously improved and matured in the last few years and have demonstrated their superiority in processing performance. The complementary expertise of this Alliance will produce and demonstrate the advantages that FPGA computing technology can offer real-world applications. FPGAs will be a key driver in the high-performance processing roadmap of the future. The objectives of the Alliance will create new knowledge to benefit HPC users and increase the understanding and awareness of this new technology."

The effort is unique, said Mark Parsons, EPCC's commercial director. "What's really exciting about this project is that no one's ever tried to build a big supercomputer with these chips before. People are always thinking up interesting designs, but the Supercomputer we've come up with is an absolutely unique system. We're trying to join a whole lot of these high-performance chips together so we can tackle very large and complex problems. It's a real opportunity for Scotland to take the lead in a hugely exciting area."

Algotronix, based in Edinburgh, supplies technical due diligence on semiconductor and semiconductor intellectual property (IP) companies. Founders Tom Kean and John Gray are world experts in FPGA and semiconductor design and built the world's first commercial reconfigurable computer, the Algotronix CHS2X4, in 1991.

Alpha Data, with offices in Edinburgh and San Jose, Calif., was set up in 1993 to solve compute-intensive applications. The company uses FPGAs to build high-performance systems for customers including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Motorola and BAE. Alpha Data is now at the leading edge of the new wave of re-configurable computing used in various sectors of the electronics industry.

The Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC) was founded at the University of Edinburgh in 1990, and is now the largest high performance computing centre in Europe. The office manages Europe's biggest supercomputer, called HPCx. By using high-performance computers to model and investigate the natural world, the centre specializes in analyzing real-world problems for clients in academia, industry, commerce and government.

The Institute for System Level Integration (ISLI) is based at the Alba Centre in Livingston. ISLI is a collaboration between Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, and Strathclyde universities and has links to Lancaster University. Founded in 1998, it is the world's first centee of excellence for postgraduate education and research in the methodology and applications of system-on-chip design, system level integration and related technologies.

Nallatech has been delivering high-performance FPGA computing solutions to global companies for over a decade. Founded by Allan Cantle in 1993, the company has brought to market 50 products and exported 90% of products. With 1,000 installations worldwide, Nallatech specialises in large infrastructure applications for clients in the aerospace, military, communications, imaging and scientific computing sectors. For more information, see www.nallatech.com.

Xilinx is based in San Jose, Calif., and valued at more than $10 billion on Nasdaq. It pioneered the development of FPGA processors and is one of the world's biggest suppliers of programmable logic devices. It designs, develops and markets a range of advanced integrated circuits, software design tools and intellectual property. Founded in 1984, Xilinx also pioneered the "fabless" model of manufacturing semiconductors by outsourcing everything but design, marketing, and support function. For more information, see www.xilinx.com.

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