SGI’s RASC Ups Application Performance

By Nicole Hemsoth

September 23, 2005

Just as supercomputers and clusters changed the face of computing, a trend is emerging for accelerating application performance: reconfigurable computing. To support this effort, Silicon Graphics Inc. has unveiled hardware based on its Reconfigurable Application-Specific Computing (RASC) technology that is capable of increasing application performance by hundreds of times over conventional systems.

“RASC technology offers HPC users a cost-effective way to achieve substantial application performance gains,” said Dave Parry, senior vice president and general manager of the Server and Platform Group at SGI.

RASC enables users to achieve high levels of performance, scalability and bandwidth for data-intensive applications critical to oil and gas exploration, defense and intelligence, bioinformatics, medical imaging, broadcast media and other data-dependent industries. The reconfigurable computing technology is available as an add-in module that operates with SGI's Intel Itanium 2 processor-based servers and visualization systems.

These data-intensive applications typically run a core set of computing routines, or algorithms, which often consume a majority of total compute time. Traditionally, these applications are limited by general-purpose processors that set limits on overall application performance. Increasingly, users are turning to Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) that can be programmed — or reconfigured — by users for a specific use or application. The FPGA device then serves as a dedicated compute engine for specific routines. Because reprogramming a processor historically required high levels of expertise, FPGA-based acceleration has yet to broadly penetrate HPC markets.

SGI's RASC solution is designed to overcome these challenges by easing the implementation of FPGA, making application performance enhancements available to more users. SGI's RASC solution set provides a combination of capabilities aimed at both enhancing performance and optimizing ease-of-deployment, including:

  * An FPGA-aware version of the Gnu Debugger (GDB) built on the current the     GDB command set, allowing simultaneous debugging of both the application     and the FPGA   * An abstraction layer that enables serial or parallel FPGA scaling   * RASC API and core services library that provides tools to develop     reconfigurable computing elements in a multi-user, multi-processing     environment   * Collaborative development with third-party HLL tool vendors   * SGI contributes to OpenFPGA, an industry     working group devoted to ensuring FPGA technologies support     HPC and enterprise applications   * Direct connection of the FPGA hardware into the NUMAlink fabric,     providing low-latency, high-bandwidth and tight integration of     application-specific and general purpose computing elements in a single     shared-memory environment   * Virtually limitless scalability of a system's FPGA processing     capabilities through the ability to connect multiple RASC expansion     modules into a single shared-memory system.  

Together, these capabilities allow RASC-enhanced instances of SGI Altix servers and Silicon Graphics Prism visualization systems to speed computationally intensive applications by hundreds of times over non-optimized systems.

With long expertise in technical and scientific computing, SGI developed its RASC technology for key applications in several markets. Some examples include the following:

  * Oil and gas: time analysis of oil flow and nearly any applications using     Fast Fourier Transform algorithms   * Defense/Intelligence: signal processing, edge detection and pattern     recognition routines   * Bioinformatics: compare and contrast routines for searching molecule or     DNA databases   * Medical imaging: detailed image processing and rendering   * Media:  broadcast and post-production transcoding (format conversions),     image processing, watermarking, motion estimation, and data conversion. 

To create an ecosystem around RASC that will streamline adoption, SGI has a strategic collaborative arrangement with Nallatech to develop new business opportunities within the HPC market. SGI and Nallatech plan to offer products and services based on SGI's RASC technology. In addition to Nallatech, SGI has also developed relationships with other FPGA technology providers — including Celoxica, Mitrionics, Starbridge Systems, Synplicity and Xilinx — as well as using standard Verilog or VHDL formats — to customize their RASC-equipped SGI systems.

“We're extremely excited by the prospect of a reconfigurable computing solution based on SGI's shared-memory architecture,” said Allan Cantle, president and CEO of Nallatech. “Early testing indicates our collaboration with SGI will result in extraordinary performance increases, far surpassing customer expectations.”

RASC technology signals a major step forward in the flexibility and capability of industry-standard computing systems. Similar to the supercomputing revolution 20 years ago and the emergence of cluster computing systems a decade later, RASC offers the chance to increase application performance by orders of magnitude. Yet unlike these earlier revolutions, RASC preserves existing investments in legacy systems by allowing upgraded systems to run a range of applications on a single system.

The introduction of RASC technology represents a major milestone in SGI's vision for multi-paradigm computing, which enables a single system architecture to meet the needs of an array of technical applications. By uniting previously disparate computing architectures with SGI's scalable shared-memory architecture, users can improve productivity by creating the first supercomputers capable of supporting and combining different computational approaches.

“With RASC, SGI combines the performance benefits of using application-specific hardware for core algorithm acceleration with the scalability and ease of use of the NUMAflex global shared-memory architecture to once again push the limits of HPC performance while maintaining a low cost of ownership for our customers,” added Parry. ”Reconfigurable computing technology is a vital component of our multi-paradigm computing vision and a will be a significant benefit to many of our customers.”

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