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August 26, 2005

Mitrionics Brings High-Performance FPGAs to the Masses

by Tim Curns, Editor

In efforts to make FPGA computing easier and more accessible to the masses, Mitrionics announced a revolutionary new development platform based on the Mitrion Virtual Processor and Software Development Kit. The new technology allows FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) to be programmed faster, easier, and more affordably than current development tools.  The Mitrionics solution does not require any hardware programming or hardware design experience and is the first to achieve true pushbutton software-to-hardware compilation.

Editor Tim Curns spoke with Mitrionics' CEO Anders Dellson to garner further insight into this technology.

Please describe your company and its place in HPC. What sort of things are you recognized for? Where areas do you hope to make the most impact in the near future?

Anders Dellson: The HPC market and industry has shown very strong interest in the tremendous potential with FPGA-based High Performance Computing for several years. Until now, the main challenge and obstacle has been the difficulty and time required to program the FPGAs.

Mitrionics is the first company to truly make FPGA acceleration possible in a practical sense for HPC. Current and previous FPGA design tools other than Mitrionics are very good at general purpose hardware design, but actually very bad at programming FPGAs for HPC. They must be used by EE hardware designers and their abstraction level is far too low for HPC. And while some of them have come out with C-type languages for programming, they still require extensive hardware design knowledge. So this really isn't really making anything easier or faster.

In contrast, the Mitrion C language allows FPGAs to be programmed without any hardware design knowledge at all. Once the program is written, our platform features a unique, first-in-the-industry, pushbutton software-to-hardware compilation. Using one real-life example, 180 lines of Mitrion C code produced 150,000 lines of VHDL. We can't go into a great deal of technical detail here, but more  information including  a white paper can be found on our Web site at

What we believe is most exciting about the Mitrion Platform is that it removes one of the major obstacles to making HPC available and accessible to a much broader market and to a much larger group of developers and programmers. Our platform effectively lowers the price, complexity, and development time for HPC. The next six months to one year should be really interesting as new HPC applications are developed and implemented in a wide variety of areas including genomics, proteomics, seismic exploration, signal processing, and financial applications just to name a few.   

HPCwire: Describe the importance of FPGA technology in the HPC space?

Dellson: FPGAs can execute specific applications 10-100x faster than CPUs, which provides a huge cost to performance benefit. And FPGA power consumption is typically less than 1% of a CPU for the same job, providing another large benefit. Lastly, FPGA performance will continue to grow with Moore's Law in the future; whereas CPUs have already hit the wall in terms of clock frequency.

During the last few years, both Cray Inc. and SGI have made significant investments in FPGA-based HPC products. This testifies to their strong belief in the FPGA as an important computing device for the future.

HPCwire: Describe how your product is different than competitive tools?

Dellson: The Mitrion Platform is 100% targeted at supercomputing (software) type of applications, as opposed to general purpose low-level chip design. The Mitrion development environment is true software programming; which is very different from hardware design in terms of being much faster and easier.

The default tools for FPGA design are HDLs (Hardware Design Languages) – Verilog or VHDL. Both are very low abstraction level compared to software programming. They require the designer to be able to design his own application-specific computer on the FPGA surface. Other leading tools on the market require tens of thousands of lines of code and take many man months or even years to develop a relatively simple HPC application. In contrast, HPC applications are what the Mitrion Platform was designed for. These applications only take a few hundred lines of code and days or weeks to program.

While some FPGA programming tools have recently come up with a c-type language, the designer still needs to have detailed knowledge in hardware design. Programming in Mitrion C does not require any hardware design knowledge.

HPCwire: How will these differences make your product more accessible to the market?

Dellson: The true software programming is key. For most HPC programmers, the Mitrion platform is the only solution that will enable them to program FPGAs today. The Mitrion programmer does not need to have a background in FPGA design or reconfigurable computing. The Mitrion C language will be very familiar and easy to learn to programmers worldwide.

This is widely recognized by SGI, Cray, and other HPC vendors. The Mitrion platform will be a key element to make their FPGA products available to the wider HPC market.

HPCwire: What do current products in this field lack? Why is this detrimental to HPC users?

Dellson: Two things are needed for FPGA-based HPC to become a widespread reality. One, off-the-shelf computer hardware including FPGAs with very high I/O capacity. Two, relatively fast and easy-to-use solutions for programming the applications to the FPGAs.

The hardware side of the equation is happening right now. Traditional HPC vendors, Cray launched their XD1 last year and SGI are launching their RASC this year. We expect other vendors to make announcements in this area in the coming year.

The hardware side also includes companies like Nallatech, a leading developer of PCI acceleration boards with FPGAs.

And now with the release of the Mitrion Platform, there is also a fast, easy, and effective programming solution available.

HPCwire: What obstacles have you run into trying to invent your product? How did you overcome these obstacles?

Dellson: Technology — the realization that software and hardware are different things and there is no way making a direct translation between them. This obstacle was solved by introducing the Mitrion Virtual Processor.

Cultural — very few people know both software and hardware design. FPGA designs today are typically about glue logic or signal processing in embedded systems. For these developers using traditional HDLs, an FFT or and MP3 decoder is about the most complex application anybody would ever try to design. So the people that know FPGAs often have little appreciation for the need of higher level programming solutions. On the other hand, software programmers typically do not know the first thing about how hardware works. Most of the time, they do not even have any idea about how the CPU they are programming works. So they would never be willing to learn traditional FPGA design even if it could deliver huge performance wins. This is the gap that the Mitrion platform bridges.

HPCwire: What kind of applications will your technology most effectively advance? Can you give specific examples?

Dellson: Good application areas include genomics, proteomics, imaging, seismic exploration, cryptography, pattern recognition, financial simulations and much more.

Today FPGAs are particularly strong at integer operations and up to single- precision floating point operations. The chips today are at the brink of being too small to get very high performance for double-precision floating-point. However, FPGAs will grow out of this limitation in the next couple of years.

Recent Mitrion based implementations include Markov Chain Monte Carlo simulations of phylogenetic trees (searching for the genomic “Tree of Life”) and image analysis for deciphering protein gels.

HPCwire: Speak a bit about the specifics of the technology involved? How did you make it so much easier for programmers and HPC users?

Dellson: The real secret of the Mitrion platform is the Mitrion Virtual Processor, that enables the true software programming. It allows the solutions the be created in two steps: In the first step, the Mitrion Processor, which is an abstract machine, is programmed in software by the developer. In the second step, a blueprint for an adapted Mitrion Processor is created. The massively parallel processor design consists of exactly the operators needed for the application, highly optimised in an architecture where data streams through the whole design to allow all the units to execute each clock cycle. This blueprint is uploaded into the FPGA – and the acceleration hardware is ready to run.

HPCwire: How will you continue to improve FPGA design? What's in the works for Mitrionics?

Dellson: First of all, we are totally dedicated to FPGA programming for the HPC market. So our promise to HPC programmers is that we will continue to work with their toolflow, not the toolflow of the EDA market.

For HPC users, FPGAs offer a quantum leap in performance increase and a path to continue to gain from Moore's Law as CPUs fail to do so.

For FPGA manufacturers, the HPC market is a completely new market – for their highest-end product lines. We help them develop this new market.

Mitrionics has come up with a working solution to the programming issue, and our goal is to be able to help bring all the benefits of FPGAs to the HPC community.

HPCwire: Thanks for speaking with me, Anders, about this exciting new technology.