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September 28, 2012

Adapteva Launches Crowd-Source Funding for Its Floating Point Accelerator

Michael Feldman

Chipmaker Adapteva is attempting to bypass the conventional venture capital funding route and collect money via a micro-investor platform known as Kickstarter. In the process, the company will open up its software and hardware design for its manycore Epiphany architecture, and deliver a parallel computing kit to anyone who can ante up $99.

The Kickstarter funding model relies on lots of small investors pledging relatively small amounts of money to bootstrap a project, in this case, for Adapteva’s “Parallella” $99 supercomputer board. The way it works is that the project creators set a funding goal and deadline. If the desired investment is collected before the deadline, all the would-be investors are charged and the project is delivered.

For Adapteva, they’re asking for enough investors to reach $750,000 within the next 30 days (starting this past Thursday). So if they get at least 7,500 takers before October 27, everyone who pledged $99 gets a board, software toolkit, and an Ubuntu Linux distro. The idea is to draw in lots of would-be developers (most of which are probably going to be coming from academic institutions) to jumpstart the Epiphany software ecosystem.

The company is initially aiming Epiphany at embedded and mobile device applications with a need for lots of flops — codes such as image recognition, signal processing, game physics, and the like. But since these same attributes of high flops and low power are also critical to supercomputing, the company is looking to break into the HPC business as well.

The main problem they’ve had to date is attracting enough investors and developers to get the chip on the fast track. Since its inception in 2008, Adapteva has collected $2.5 million in private investment and has partnered with Brown Deer Technology to deliver an OpenCL port for the architecture. That’s been enough to support four generations of processor development and an initial SDK, but to compete with the big boys in the accelerator business, like NVIDIA and Intel, Epiphany needs to attract a much larger developer community.

According to Andreas Olofsson, founder and CEO of Adapteva, right now a board outfitted with an Epiphany accelerator costs thousands of dollars, which greatly limits access for software developers. “Let’s open this up to everybody and sell it cheap,” he told HPCwire. Olofsson felt that couldn’t be accomplished within the confines of a traditional funding model, which is why they went the Kickstarter route.

The Parallella board they’re offering is outfitted with a dual-core ARM CPU, a 16-core Epiphany accelerator chip, 1 GB of RAM, a MicroSD card, two USB ports, and HDMI port, and an Ethernet connection. The kit also includes an I/O interface that can be hooked up to a sensor or camera for a real-world application The whole thing measures 3.4″ by 2.1″ — about the size of a credit card — and draws anywhere between 2.5 and 5 watts.

The low power is enabled by the ultra-efficient Epiphany RISC design. Adapteva has a 26-gigaflop, 16-core chip in production today and a 64-core pre-production version waiting in the wings The 64-core accelerator delivers up to 100 gigaflops (single precision) on just 2 watts of power. At 50 gigaflops/watt, this latest Epiphany processor is probably the champ of energy-efficient computing today, at least in the floating point realm.

But right now, those chips are expensive to produce, mainly because Adapteva is employing a low-volume manufacturing process, which yields about 50 dies per wafer. If they had full production mask sets, they could shift into high-volume manufacturing and get thousands of dies per wafer. That would reduce the cost of an Epiphany processor to a few dollars per chip, which would make the $99 price point for the entire board feasible.

To get to that production model, the chip foundry needs to retool, which is a significant expense. That’s where at least some of the investment funds collected by the Parallella project comes in. The money will also be used to shrink the current reference board down to its credit-card size and set up a high-volume chip production flow.

Adapteva has also set an additional Kickstarter “stretch goal” of $3 million. If they hit that by the end of October, the company will offer a board outfitted with the 64-core Epiphany chip. For that privilege, an investor will have to kick in an additional $100 on top of their original $99 pledge.
In either case, with each board Adapteva will include their complete software development stack of compilers (C/C++, OpenCL), debugger, libraries, and drivers for free. And the entire stack as well as the board design will be provided as open source.

All of this is dependent upon getting at least 7,500 developers willing to plunk down $99 dollars for the kit. They’re off to a decent start. According to Kickstarter’s Parallella site, a day after they launched the program, they’ve signed up 532 backers who pledged at least $99. Olofsson is optimistic that this is indeed the model that will attract developers and get the technology the attention it deserves. “If we can’t get 7,500 people excited about our architecture for $99, maybe we should go home,” he says.


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