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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...

About Don MacVittie
Don MacVittie is Founder of Ingrained Technology, LLC, specializing in Development, Devops, and Cloud Strategy. Previously, he was a Technical Marketing Manager at F5 Networks. As an industry veteran, MacVittie has extensive programming experience along with project management, IT management, and systems/network administration expertise.

Prior to joining F5, MacVittie was a Senior Technology Editor at Network Computing, where he conducted product research and evaluated storage and server systems, as well as development and outsourcing solutions. He has authored numerous articles on a variety of topics aimed at IT professionals. MacVittie holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Northern Michigan University, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.

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Cloud Expo 2013 East Opening Keynote by IBM
In this Cloud Expo Keynote, Danny Sabbah, CTO & General Manager, Next Generation Platform, will detail the critical architectural considerations and success factors organizations must internalize to successfully implement, optimize and innovate using next generation architectures.
Lisa Larson, Vice President of Enterprise Cloud Solutions of Rackspace Hosting Live From New York City
In the old world of IT, if you didn't have hardware capacity or the budget to buy more, your project was dead in the water. Budget constraints can leave some of the best, most creative and most ingenious innovations on the cutting room floor. It's a true dilemma for developers and innovators – why spend the time creating, when a project could be abandoned in a blink? That was the old world. In the new world of IT, developers rule. They have access to resources they can spin up instantly. A hybrid cloud ignites innovation and empowers developers to focus on what they need. A hybrid cloud blends the best of all worlds, public cloud, private cloud and dedicated servers to fit the needs of developers and offer the ideal environment for each app and workload without the constraints of a one-size-fits-all cloud.

Keynote: Driving Cloud Innovation: SSDs Change Cloud Storage Paradigm
Cloud is a transformational shift in computing that can have a powerful effect on enterprise IT when designed correctly and used to its full potential. Join Citrix in a discussion that centers on building, connecting and empowering users with cloud services and hear examples of how enterprises are solving real-world business challenges with an architecture and solution purpose-built for the cloud.

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Introducing Big Data Expo
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There is little doubt that Big Data solutions will have an increasing role in the Enterprise IT mainstream over time. Get a jump on that rapidly evolving trend at Big Data Expo, which we are introducing in June at
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@CloudExpo Blogs
A friend of mine's son recently returned from an extended absence which basically removed him from nearly all aspects of technology, including the Internet, for a bit longer than 5 years. Upon return, observing him restore his awareness of technologies and absorb all things new developed over the past 5 years was both exciting and moving. To be fair, the guy grew up in an Internet world, with access to online resources including Facebook, Twitter, and other social applications. The interesting part of his re-introduction to the "wired" world was watching the comprehension flashes he went t...
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DevOps was created to reduce many of these same conflicts and while DevOps has had several high-profile successes it still presents a challenge for larger organizations. Large enterprises managing mission-critical systems still have separate silos for development and operations. In this post I discuss how DevOps fits into the enterprise and what release managers can do to adapt and extend DevOps to meet the challenges present in larger businesses. First, I’m going to define DevOps. Then I’m going to discuss the impedance mismatch between DevOps and a larger enterprise. In conclusion I’m going...
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Over the last couple of years I have talked to numerous enterprise customers, analysts, industry pundits, and others interested in cloud technologies, and one thing is abundantly clear – Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) seems to mean different things to different people. But the term PaaS is irrelevant – it's just noise. What is relevant, and what is important, is what PaaS does: enable applications. That's what enterprises care about. They want to accelerate application development to get products to market faster and into users' hands sooner.
Log data provides the most granular view into what is happening across your systems, applications, and end users. Logs can show you where the issues are in real-time, and provide a historical trending view over time. Logs give you the whole picture. Containerization and micro-services are changing how development and operations teams design, build and monitor systems. Containerization of environments regularly results in systems with large numbers of dynamic and ephemeral instances that autoscale to meet demands on system load. In fact, it's not uncommon to see thousands of container instanc...
Our guest on the podcast this week is Mark Thiele, EVP of Data Center Technology at Switch. We discuss the idea that private clouds are often equated with do-it-yourself and why that should be changed. Taking sure you are receiving the private environment you need at a cost that can support your business. Listen in to learn the different ways to own and manage a private cloud.
Every successful company hits growing pains at some point along the way. One of the most harrowing for IT is the transition from the “build it quick!” startup mindset to the more structured and stable mentality of a mid-stage business. For VIIAD Systems, a healthcare technology company that is reinventing how healthcare information flows, our transition from startup to mid-stage was marked by a transition from a physical, bare metal solution to a private cloud. We had been experiencing an almost overwhelming influx of business over the last two years, which was both a blessing and a challen...
RealTime Medicare Data analyzes huge volumes of Medicare data and provides analysis to their many customers on the caregiver side of the healthcare sector using HP Vertica. Here to explain how they manage such large data requirements for quality, speed, and volume, we're joined by Scott Hannon, CIO of RealTime Medicare Data and he's based in Birmingham, Alabama. The discussion is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Creating global change that is actually good for the entire world is a mammoth task. With a population of almost 7 Billion people as of 2015, the planet is taking a toll with surviving the brunt of keeping the works going. What role can Cloud Computing play in making it easier for all of us?
Experts predict that the cloud computing will continue to grow this year. According to the Computerworld Forecast Study, spending on cloud computing is expected to rise by 42% in 2015. Moreover, Esna projects that in a bid to increase the use of mobile, social, customer-facing and collaboration technologies, 40% of IT teams will spend more on software as a service and a mix of public, private and hybrid solutions this year.
Log data provides the most granular view into what is happening across your systems, applications, and end users. Logs can show you where the issues are in real-time, and provide a historical trending view over time. Logs give you the whole picture. Logentries has announced a new integration with Elasticsearch's Logstash, an open source solution for managing logs and event data. The new integration enables users to easily forward logs collected via Logstash into the cloud-based Logentries service for more meaningful analysis and visualization over time. Similarly the Logentries Open API allo...
It is no surprise to anyone that service providers need to find new sources of revenue and increase profitability. The digital, cloud and as-a-service revolution provides a silver lining. As IT organizations feel the tension that comes from a combination of aging legacy B2B infrastructure, changing business mandates and rapidly evolving e-commerce requirements, they are increasingly looking at digital services and outsourcing to trusted providers. They want a trusted partner to deliver connected digital services; including mobile, cloud and M2M/IoT. The pressure is on for businesses to thin...
Over the last few years, Motus experienced a surge in business driven by its transformation to a mobile hub for their customers. As the company expanded their existing client footprint, they seized an opportunity to also integrate mobile workforce data with CRM, sales and expense management offerings. With the new business requirements, Motus knew they had to move from their legacy PHP single stack to a more nimble, service-based architecture to meet the demands of rapid development. As the new infrastructure development started, Motus' VP of Engineering Scott Rankin realized that Motus' ex...
Tunisie Electronique, a Tunisian IT services provider, improved their IT service management offerings and capabilities leveraging cloud-based services. To learn more about better IT control and efficiency using the latest ITSM tools and services, we are joined by Fadoua Ouerdiane, IT Projects Director at SMS and Tunisie Electronique in Tunis, Tunisia. The discussion is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
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Past SYS-CON Events
    Cloud Expo West
cloudcomputingexpo
2011west.sys-con.com

 
    Cloud Expo East
cloudcexpo
2011east.sys-con.com

 
    Cloud Expo West
cloudcomputingexpo
2010west.sys-con.com

 
    Virtualization Expo West
virtualization
2010west.sys-con.com
    Cloud Expo Europe
cloudexpoeurope2010.
sys-con.com

 
    Cloud Expo East
cloudcomputingexpo
2010east.sys-con.com

 
    Virtualization Expo East
virtualizationconference
2010east.sys-con.com
    Cloud Expo West
cloudcomputingexpo
2009west.sys-con.com

 
    Virtualization Expo West
virtualizationconference
2009west.sys-con.com
    GovIT Expo
govitexpo.com
 
    Cloud Expo Europe
cloudexpoeurope2009.sys-con.com
 

Cloud Expo 2011 Allstar Conference Faculty

S.F.S.
Dell

Singer
NRO

Pereyra
Oracle

Ryan
OpSource

Butte
PwC

Leone
Oracle

Riley
AWS

Varia
AWS

Lye
Oracle

O'Connor
AppZero

Crandell
RightScale

Nucci
Dell Boomi

Hillier
CiRBA

Morrison
Layer 7 Tech

Robbins
NYT

Schwarz
Oracle

What The Enterprise IT World Says About Cloud Expo
 
"We had extremely positive feedback from both customers and prospects that attended the show and saw live demos of NaviSite's enterprise cloud based services."
  –William Toll
Sr. Director, Marketing & Strategic Alliances
Navisite
 


 
"More and better leads than ever expected! I have 4-6 follow ups personally."
  –Richard Wellner
Chief Scientist
Univa UD
 


 
"Good crowd, good questions. The event looked very successful."
  –Simon Crosby
CTO
Citrix Systems
 


 
"It's the largest cloud computing conference I've ever seen."
  –David Linthicum
CTO
Brick Group