Improving reprogrammable chips: Vaughn Betz renewed as Industrial Research Chair

Professor Vaughn Betz

July 25, 2017

Moore’s Law — the observation that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years — might not be dead, but it is slowing. A key challenge for computer engineers is finding new ways to increase compute power and reduce energy consumption to handle the ongoing demand for faster and cheaper computing technologies.

Professor Vaughn Betz of The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) is working on this challenge with reconfigurable chips called Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs), and he has recently been renewed as the NSERC/Intel Industrial Research Chair in Programmable Silicon.

FPGAs are computer chips that give the end user the flexibility of reprogramming them after manufacturing, unlike other chips like application-specific integrated circuits which are customized during manufacturing for a specific use. During this term as research chair Betz and his team will work on making FPGAs more efficient, develop software that makes FPGAs easier to design and improve the power efficiency of these reprogrammable chips.

One area where improved FPGAs could be useful is in the data centres that process, move and store the data in our information systems. Faced with computational workloads like machine learning, searches or data compression, FPGA based servers can be reconfigured to offer higher performance and lower energy consumption. “In many computations, we can reduce energy consumption by more than ten times if we can configure specialized hardware into FPGAs instead of controlling a general processor with software instructions,” says Betz. “The challenge with FPGAs is that it is more difficult to design an application to run on them than on a general processor, so we are working on making this easier.”

The funds associated with the research chair will support research activities and equipment to develop new FPGA hardware along with software tools to implement designs that make FPGAs more energy-efficient and versatile, potentially improving areas like environmental impact and healthcare. “Data centres consume a tremendous amount of power — about two per cent of U.S. electricity demand,” says Betz. “If we can employ FPGAs in data centres, which today mainly use conventional processors, we could reduce the environmental impact while enabling new and better technologies.”

Industrial Research Chairs are jointly funded by NSERC and by industry; Intel is one of the world’s leading FPGA companies and a long-standing industry partner with ECE.

“NSERC is proud to support the renewal of this Industrial Research Chair – a testament to the impressive work of Professor Betz and his team and their capacity to form strong R&D partnerships,” says Bert van den Berg, Acting Vice-President, Research Partnerships, NSERC. “This Chair will build on its previous success in developing innovations that will save power through increased efficiency in computation-intensive applications and will produce economic and environmental benefits to Canada.”

In the first term of the chair, Professor Betz and his team developed new computer-aided design software tools to explore the optimization of FPGAs and used these tools to show that incorporating new structures can improve the efficiency of FPGAs. They also showed that FPGAs can accelerate computations like those required to optimize light-activated chemotherapy.

“Professor Betz is a world leader in FPGAs and the software systems that are used to design them,” says Professor Farid Najm, chair of ECE. “His ongoing work with Intel will help to keep ECE at the forefront of research on reprogrammable integrated circuits.”

More information:
Jessica MacInnis
Senior Communications Officer
The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering