Around the end of 2016 I wrote a longer article about the state of the IT infrastructure, trying to single out a trend I was observing. I was clearly inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s books as well as my own deep-dive sessions into technology. My conclusions back then were a vision of container or unikernel approach written directly into programmable field arrays by means of combining standard operations in hardware with micro-service architecture, but there was a substantial challenge to be overcome first.
Recently, my friend Matt Dziubinski shared with me an excellent article published under the Electronic Engineering Journal by Kevin Morris that seems to show where things are taking off. Titled “Accelerating Mainstream Services with FPGAs”, the author brings up how Intel acquired Altera, a major player in the FPGA market. It’s been a while since then with many comments suggesting Intel is bringing the hardware infrastructure to the next level. Since then however, the world hasn’t heard about a brain child of the top chip manufacturer fused with hardware accelerators from Altera. How is this merger really driving acceleration in the data center?
The major risk I saw back when I wrote my article was the enterprises’ capability to adopt such technology, given talent scarcity, especially for such low-level tinkering on mass scale. That type of activity is usually reserved for hyperscalers and high frequency trading technology. According to Intel statements and the EEJ article itself, Intel is moving forward in a slightly different direction by launching PACs (news statement), or programmable acceleration cards, which are based on Altera’s Arria 10 GX FPGAs and come with a PCIe interface. That’s right – the smart people at Intel have addressed the challenge by allowing specialized companies tune acceleration cards on per-need basis, which then they can simply insert into their boxes of preference: Dell, HP or Fujitsu. I am guessing integration with blade-type infrastructure is a matter of time as well. This way, enterprises don’t need to hire FPGA programmers with years of Verilog experience anymore. In a consolidating market, that’s a major advantage.
And now, most importantly, a glimpse at the numbers. According to the article on EJJ: In financial risk analysis, there’s an 850% per-symbol algorithm speedup and a greater than 2x simulation time speedup compared with traditional “Spark” implementation. On database acceleration, Intel claims 20X+ faster real-time data analytics, 2x+ traditional data warehousing, and 3x+ storage compression. And that speed-up is without considering the upcoming HBM2 memory and 7nm chip manufacturing process (The FPGAs are on 20nm themselves).