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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 currently a Senior Solutions Architect at StackIQ, Inc. He is also working with Mesamundi on D20PRO, and is a member of the Stacki Open Source project. He has experience in application development, architecture, infrastructure, technical writing, 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.

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Cloud Expo - Cloud Looms Large on SYS-CON.TV


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.

Go Beyond IaaS to Deliver "Anything As a Service"
Many organizations want to expand upon the IaaS foundation to deliver cloud services in all forms—software, mobility, infrastructure and IT. Understanding the strategy, planning process and tools for this transformation will help catalyze changes in the way the business operates and deliver real value. Join us to learn about the new ITaaS model and how to begin the transformation.


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Top Stories for Cloud Expo 2012 East

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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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Testimonials
Cloud Expo was a fantastic event for CSS Corp - we easily exceeded our objectives for engaging with clients and prospects."
AHMAR ABBAS
SVP, Global Infrastructure Management, CSS Corp.
 
With our launch at Cloud Expo, we successfully transformed the company from a relatively unknown European player into the dominant player in the market. Our competitors were taken by surprise and just blown away. We got a huge number of really high quality leads..."
PETE MALCOLM
CEO, Abiquo
 
We were extremely pleased with Cloud Expo this year - I’d say it exceeded expectations all around. This is the same info we got from partners who attended as well. Nice job!"
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Cloud Expo helps focus the debate on the critical issues at hand in effect connecting main street with the next frontier."

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@CloudExpo Blogs
The digital signage market was valued at USD 16.88 billion in 2015 and is expected to reach USD 27.34 billion by 2022, at a CAGR of 6.7% between 2016 and 2022, as per marketsandmarkets.com. It is also considered as a future for retail and similar industries, where customer experience plays a major role.
Imagine if you will, a world where technology is changing at breakneck speeds. Where new technology hype seems to know no bounds. You see words floating in front of you. Cloud. Mobile. Big Data. Internet of Things. Machine Learning. Blockchain. The words fly towards you, circling. They seem to be saying something. ‘Use me’… “No, use me.’. Confusion seems to abound. At the sign post up ahead, your next stop, the Disruption Zone!
Canadian nonprofit SOCAN faced digital disruption and fought back by adopting storage innovation that allows for faster responses to end-user needs and opens the door to new business opportunities. The next BriefingsDirect Voice of the Customer digital business transformation case study examines how Canadian nonprofit SOCAN faced digital disruption and fought back with a successful storage modernizing journey. We'll learn how adopting storage innovation allows for faster responses to end-user needs and opens the door to new business opportunities.
DELL EMC’s Isilon division has been working with Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) to create a data lake that provides a seamless process to add and maintain massive amounts of video data to serve their baseball fanatics (like me). Here is a cool 2-minute video that shows how they did it. The company operates the official web site for the league and the thirty Major League Baseball club web sites via MLB.com, which draws four million hits per day. It also provides the backend-streaming infrastructure for WWE Network, HBO NOW, NHL etc.
The next generation of platforms is here with options in both cloud and on premises hyperconverged infrastructure. How do real people in today's business world make the correct choices on where to move? As IT departments look to move beyond traditional virtualization into cloud and hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) platforms, they have a lot to consider. There are many types of organizations with different IT needs and it is important to determine whether those needs align more cloud or HCI. Before I dig into the differences, let me go over the similarities.
Phishing has been around since the dawn of the internet. The term was first used in an AOL Usenet group back in 1996 but it wasn’t until 2003 when many baited hooks and lures started dropping. Popular transaction destinations like PayPal and eBay were some of the early victims of these spoofed sites asking customers to update their personal and credit card information. By 2004, it was a full-fledged ‘get rich quick scheme’ with many financial institutions – and their customers – as targets.
From EMEA to APAC to the EU, growth in mobile devices and consumption of Internet bandwidth have grown at an incredible rate. One of the features of mobile devices that consumers like best is the ability to have their experience tailored to their geographic location, demographic profile, behaviors and preferences. These capabilities have greatly enhanced the user experience by providing users with information that is most relevant to them, whether that means finding the closest gas station, locating the best sushi restaurant within a city block or finding the best deal on a new pair of shoes w...
In his keynote at 18th Cloud Expo, Andrew Keys, Co-Founder of ConsenSys Enterprise, provided an overview of the evolution of the Internet and the Database and the future of their combination – the Blockchain. Andrew Keys is Co-Founder of ConsenSys Enterprise. He comes to ConsenSys Enterprise with capital markets, technology and entrepreneurial experience. Previously, he worked for UBS investment bank in equities analysis. Later, he was responsible for the creation and distribution of life settlement products to hedge funds and investment banks. After, he co-founded a revenue cycle management...
The Transparent Cloud-computing Consortium (abbreviation: T-Cloud Consortium) will conduct research activities into changes in the computing model as a result of collaboration between "device" and "cloud" and the creation of new value and markets through organic data processing High speed and high quality networks, and dramatic improvements in computer processing capabilities, have greatly changed the nature of applications and made the storing and processing of data on the network commonplace.
Cognitive Computing is becoming the foundation for a new generation of solutions that have the potential to transform business. Unlike traditional approaches to building solutions, a cognitive computing approach allows the data to help determine the way applications are designed. This contrasts with conventional software development that begins with defining logic based on the current way a business operates. In her session at 18th Cloud Expo, Judith S. Hurwitz, President and CEO of Hurwitz & Associates, Inc., put cognitive computing into perspective with its value to the business. The sessi...
Enterprise IT has been in the era of Hybrid Cloud for some time now. But it seems most conversations about Hybrid are focused on integrating AWS, Microsoft Azure, or Google ECM into existing on-premises systems. Where is all the Private Cloud? What do technology providers need to do to make their offerings more compelling? How should enterprise IT executives and buyers define their focus, needs, and roadmap, and communicate that clearly to the providers?
In case you haven’t heard, the new hotness in app architectures is serverless. Mainly restricted to cloud environments (Amazon Lambda, Google Cloud Functions, Microsoft Azure Functions) the general concept is that you don’t have to worry about anything but the small snippets of code (functions) you write to do something when something happens. That’s an event-driven model, by the way, that should be very familiar to anyone who has taken advantage of a programmable proxy to do app or API routing and rewriting or executed inspection of requests or responses for malicious content.
The many IoT deployments around the world are busy integrating smart devices and sensors into their enterprise IT infrastructures. Yet all of this technology – and there are an amazing number of choices – is of no use without the software to gather, communicate, and analyze the new data flows. Without software, there is no IT. In this power panel at @ThingsExpo, moderated by Conference Chair Roger Strukhoff, panelists will look at the protocols that communicate data and the emerging data analytics that bring its full value to the enterprise. The era of Big Data and "Little Big Data" has arri...
"You have a memory like an elephant," is truly a compliment. Researchers document all kinds of remarkable examples of the recall power of elephants, and this is credited with their ability to survive harsh environments as noted in this Scientific American article http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/elephants-never-forget/. Our human memory also helps us learn from past experiences and mistakes, avoid recognizable hazards and keep track of our very busy lives. Our memories for the most part have served us well, but the same might not always be said about digital memory in an always conne...
SYS-CON Events announced today that China Unicom will exhibit at the 19th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 1–3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. China United Network Communications Group Co. Ltd ("China Unicom") was officially established in 2009 on the basis of the merger of former China Netcom and former China Unicom. China Unicom mainly operates a full range of telecommunications services including mobile broadband (GSM, WCDMA, LTE FDD, TD-LTE), fixed-line broadband, ICT, data communications, domestic and international communicatio...
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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