Welcome!

Apache Authors: Pat Romanski, Liz McMillan, Elizabeth White, Christopher Harrold, Janakiram MSV

Related Topics: Containers Expo Blog, Industrial IoT, Microservices Expo, Machine Learning , @CloudExpo, Apache

Containers Expo Blog: Blog Feed Post

Bare Metal Blog: FPGAs - The Benefits and Risks

The use of FPGAs, the risks, trade-offs, and benefits to IT

I was talking with the team working on our yard – they’re putting in new sidewalks and a patio, amongst other things – and we got on the subject of gutters. When we bought this house, it came with no gutters, and that has, over time, caused some serious damage to the base of the house. Wood and plaster do not take it well when water pours down on them at the rate that, oh, say melting snow in the spring sends it down. So I had them get us an estimate for gutters on the entire house. Some of the work they’re estimating is running the gutters right to the storm drain, which is not normally cheap, but they had both the front and back yards all ripped up, so it is a good time to do it, both cheaper and less messy, since the mess is already there.

imageSo I told them to do it, because I don’t want the sod they’re going to lay to be ripped up in a year when we decide to put the gutters on, and certainly don’t want them to rip up the patio and sidewalks they’re putting in now just to lay pipe later – that would be nearly impossible.

And that, in a nutshell, is the same reason why FPGAs are used in a lot of high-tech firms. If the device is my yard/sidewalks, and I have to choose between a custom ASIC versus an FPGA, the custom ASIC would require me to rip up the yard later, while the FPGA is planning ahead for change.

Sidewalk with pipes under itLet me explain. With an FPGA, the circuits are programmed. Not like software, but code sets up the circuits, and then they are pretty equivalent to having them be hard-wired. With an ASIC, they really are hard-wired. So six months later, a change to the system – be it added functionality or fixes to existing logic – will be far easier with an FPGA than an ASIC. With an FPGA, the design file is opened, the changes made and tested, then the config is compiled and delivered to manufacturing. At that point, the devices produced with the new config file will have the new functionality. With ASICs, you change the design, send it to a manufacturing shop, wait for the shop to produce a small run (working it into their schedule that is), test the result, and then do a full production run. Then the new ASIC has to be put on the assembly line to replace the old ASIC. The difference is astronomical in terms of time required and even more so in terms of cost.

Of course there are some trade-offs. Every architectural choice results in trade-offs, and anyone who tells you differently is indeed trying to sell you something, and they don’t want to admit the trade-offs used to produce what they’re selling.

One of the big concerns out there about FPGAs is that they’re less secure. In the most vague, general sense, this is true. But in practical use scenarios, it most certainly isn’t. Here are the concerns, and why they’re over-rated (note that these notes are adapted from responses to my questions put to Clint Harames of F5<’s most excellent FPGA team, I cannot vouch for other production except to say the other teams I was involved with outside of F5 were similar):

  • It’s field programmable! What if it gets modified? In F5’s case, none of the programmability is accessible from the outside. There is no Ethernet or coding hack that can reprogram it, because that functionality is not accessible. Other vendors work to a differing standard, so definitely worth checking, though I would remind you that it is almost never going to be as easy to hack an FPGA as it is to hack software or COTS hardware.
  • Okay, but can’t it be erased and destroy the device? In theory yes (though erasing it is only effective until the next boot – non-destructive, so-to-speak), but if “modify” functionality is not accessible, then it can’t be erased easily. The caveat is that there is of course a reset pin on the chip, but if the ne’er-do-well has physical access to your device, time to disassemble the device, and a handy pinout for the FPGA chip you’re using, I’m going to guess you have bigger problems than whether they can reset your FPGA.
  • If it’s programmable, can’t the program be read out and modified? Again, that functionality can be enabled on the chip, and you can check with your device manufacturer to see if they leave it enabled for production devices. Remember, it is a twofold story here, in F5’s case, we don’t generally want to reprogram production devices and don’t want to make reverse engineering our product any easier than it has to be, while we want to protect you from someone modifying a production device. So when the design is done and meets all test criteria, we at F5 turn access to this functionality off completely before shipping product is produced. Definitely worth checking with your vendor to find out what they are doing.

Again, your vendor may do things differently, if, for some reason they need the ability to reprogram the FPGA in your device.

For you, the IT staffer, the benefits are pretty straight-forward. The device you purchase will be closer to “up to date” because of the time-to-market benefits of FPGAs, it will be cheaper because of the reduced up-front costs (note that like everything involving costs, economies of scale can change the “cheaper” part to be untrue, depending upon the costs involved), and the resulting device will be far, far faster than the equivalent processing done on a general purpose CPU. In the end, it is hardware doing the processing, and FPGAs have concurrency that general purpose CPUs can only match with a huge number of cores, even then since the OS handles the scheduling on a general purpose CPU, many cores does not normally make up the performance difference.

There are some who think the advent of virtualization and virtualized appliances should curb the use of FPGAs, as the virtual version has to include all the functionality. While this is, on the surface, a reasonable argument, it has a flaw. FPGAs are MUCH faster than software will ever be, let alone a VM running on a host with who-knows-how-many other VMs sharing its resources. So in cases like F5, where there is a hardware and a software version, the key is to be able to run in both. TMOS, F5’s OS for traffic management, uses hardware if available, software if not. This offers the best of both worlds – acceptable traffic management in a VM, and high-performance traffic management in hardware.

Next time I’ll delve into specific functionality that on our hardware platforms is implemented in FPGA, and how that helps you do your job in IT, today was more of a “what are the risks, what are the benefits” in a generic sense.

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By Don MacVittie

Don MacVittie is founder of Ingrained Technology, A technical advocacy and software development consultancy. He has experience in application development, architecture, infrastructure, technical writing,DevOps, and IT management. MacVittie holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Northern Michigan University, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.

@ThingsExpo Stories
The question before companies today is not whether to become intelligent, it’s a question of how and how fast. The key is to adopt and deploy an intelligent application strategy while simultaneously preparing to scale that intelligence. In her session at 21st Cloud Expo, Sangeeta Chakraborty, Chief Customer Officer at Ayasdi, will provide a tactical framework to become a truly intelligent enterprise, including how to identify the right applications for AI, how to build a Center of Excellence to ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Massive Networks will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Massive Networks mission is simple. To help your business operate seamlessly with fast, reliable, and secure internet and network solutions. Improve your customer's experience with outstanding connections to your cloud.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Datera, that offers a radically new data management architecture, has been named "Exhibitor" of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo ®, which will take place on Oct 31 - Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Datera is transforming the traditional datacenter model through modern cloud simplicity. The technology industry is at another major inflection point. The rise of mobile, the Internet of Things, data storage and Big...
Everything run by electricity will eventually be connected to the Internet. Get ahead of the Internet of Things revolution and join Akvelon expert and IoT industry leader, Sergey Grebnov, in his session at @ThingsExpo, for an educational dive into the world of managing your home, workplace and all the devices they contain with the power of machine-based AI and intelligent Bot services for a completely streamlined experience.
Because IoT devices are deployed in mission-critical environments more than ever before, it’s increasingly imperative they be truly smart. IoT sensors simply stockpiling data isn’t useful. IoT must be artificially and naturally intelligent in order to provide more value In his session at @ThingsExpo, John Crupi, Vice President and Engineering System Architect at Greenwave Systems, will discuss how IoT artificial intelligence (AI) can be carried out via edge analytics and machine learning techn...
In his session at @ThingsExpo, Arvind Radhakrishnen discussed how IoT offers new business models in banking and financial services organizations with the capability to revolutionize products, payments, channels, business processes and asset management built on strong architectural foundation. The following topics were covered: How IoT stands to impact various business parameters including customer experience, cost and risk management within BFS organizations.
SYS-CON Events announced today that CA Technologies has been named "Platinum Sponsor" of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place October 31-November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. CA Technologies helps customers succeed in a future where every business - from apparel to energy - is being rewritten by software. From planning to development to management to security, CA creates software that fuels transformation for companies in the applic...
From 2013, NTT Communications has been providing cPaaS service, SkyWay. Its customer’s expectations for leveraging WebRTC technology are not only typical real-time communication use cases such as Web conference, remote education, but also IoT use cases such as remote camera monitoring, smart-glass, and robotic. Because of this, NTT Communications has numerous IoT business use-cases that its customers are developing on top of PaaS. WebRTC will lead IoT businesses to be more innovative and address...
SYS-CON Events announced today that CA Technologies has been named “Platinum Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place October 31-November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. CA Technologies helps customers succeed in a future where every business – from apparel to energy – is being rewritten by software. From planning to development to management to security, CA creates software that fuels transformation for companies in the applic...
Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place October 31 - November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with 21st Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the most profound change in personal and enterprise IT since the creation of the Worldwide Web more than 20 years ago. All major researchers estimate there will be tens of billions devic...
WebRTC is great technology to build your own communication tools. It will be even more exciting experience it with advanced devices, such as a 360 Camera, 360 microphone, and a depth sensor camera. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Masashi Ganeko, a manager at INFOCOM Corporation, will introduce two experimental projects from his team and what they learned from them. "Shotoku Tamago" uses the robot audition software HARK to track speakers in 360 video of a remote party. "Virtual Teleport" uses a...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Calligo has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Calligo is an innovative cloud service provider offering mid-sized companies the highest levels of data privacy. Calligo offers unparalleled application performance guarantees, commercial flexibility and a personalized support service from its globally located cloud platform...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Elastifile will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 - Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Elastifile Cloud File System (ECFS) is software-defined data infrastructure designed for seamless and efficient management of dynamic workloads across heterogeneous environments. Elastifile provides the architecture needed to optimize your hybrid cloud environment, by facilitating efficient...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Cloudistics, an on-premises cloud computing company, has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Launched in 2016, Cloudistics helps anyone bring the power of the cloud to the data center in an easy-to-use, on- premises cloud platform that automatically provides high performance resources for all types of applications: Docke...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Golden Gate University will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Since 1901, non-profit Golden Gate University (GGU) has been helping adults achieve their professional goals by providing high quality, practice-based undergraduate and graduate educational programs in law, taxation, business and related professions. Many of its courses are taug...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Golden Gate University will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Since 1901, non-profit Golden Gate University (GGU) has been helping adults achieve their professional goals by providing high quality, practice-based undergraduate and graduate educational programs in law, taxation, business and related professions. Many of its courses are taug...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Secure Channels, a cybersecurity firm, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Secure Channels, Inc. offers several products and solutions to its many clients, helping them protect critical data from being compromised and access to computer networks from the unauthorized. The company develops comprehensive data encryption security strategie...
Recently, WebRTC has a lot of eyes from market. The use cases of WebRTC are expanding - video chat, online education, online health care etc. Not only for human-to-human communication, but also IoT use cases such as machine to human use cases can be seen recently. One of the typical use-case is remote camera monitoring. With WebRTC, people can have interoperability and flexibility for deploying monitoring service. However, the benefit of WebRTC for IoT is not only its convenience and interopera...
SYS-CON Events announced today that SkyScale will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. SkyScale is a world-class provider of cloud-based, ultra-fast multi-GPU hardware platforms for lease to customers desiring the fastest performance available as a service anywhere in the world. SkyScale builds, configures, and manages dedicated systems strategically located in maximum-security...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Datera will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Datera offers a radically new approach to data management, where innovative software makes data infrastructure invisible, elastic and able to perform at the highest level. It eliminates hardware lock-in and gives IT organizations the choice to source x86 server nodes, with business model option...