Intel, FPGAs, and OpenCL

>> Monday, June 23, 2014

Intel has announced that upcoming releases of the Xeon processor will have integrated Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs). At first, this amazed me. The primary languages for FPGA design are Verilog and VHDL, and both are beyond the experience of most Intel programmers. In fact, the process of designing an FPGA circuit with Verilog/VHDL is completely different than that of building a C/C++ application.

Then a thought struck me. The two main FPGA vendors, Xilinx and Altera, are developing toolsets for creating FPGA designs with OpenCL. I wouldn't be surprised if the Xeon's FPGA is intended to be accessed through OpenCL, not Verilog or VHDL.

The announcement doesn't say whose FPGAs will be integrated in the Xeon, but it's noteworthy that Intel is manufacturing Altera's latest generation of FPGAs, which includes the Arria 10 and the Stratix 10. These are the first FPGAs to provide dedicated logic for floating-point DSP. Further, Altera is working hard on its OpenCL support, and I can state from experience that their SDK is functional and polished.

So here's my prediction: Intel's new Xeons will have integrated FPGAs from Altera. Developers will be able to access the FPGAs' dedicated DSP blocks using OpenCL.

This sounds fine, but I foresee three problems:

  1. No matter what language you use, compiling an FPGA design takes hours. Are developers willing to wait that long?
  2. Altera's OpenCL SDK is great, but it's not free. Also, it requires installation of Altera's Quartus II application.
  3. Despite my best efforts, the OpenCL developer community is pretty small. Integrating OpenCL-accessible FPGAs into high-end CPUs seems like a big risk.
Wait a minute. What if these Xeons are intended for Apple? Apple is a fervent believer in OpenCL and they probably know which floating-point routines need FPGA acceleration. Hmm.

ETA: I received a link to a post that accuses Intel of copying Microsoft's effort to use FPGAs to accelerate web searching. This may be the case, but I suspect Intel is trying to compete with Nvidia's high-speed number-crunching servers. We'll see...

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