Welcome!

AJAX & REA Authors: Pat Romanski, Miguel Valdes Faura, Liz McMillan, Carmen Gonzalez, Elizabeth White

Related Topics: Virtualization, XML, SOA & WOA, AJAX & REA, Cloud Expo, Apache

Virtualization: Blog Feed Post

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...

More Stories By Don MacVittie

Don MacVittie is Founder of Ingrained Technology, LLC, specializing in Development, Devops, and Cloud Strategy. Previously, he was a Technical Marketing Manager at F5 Networks. As an industry veteran, MacVittie has extensive programming experience along with project management, IT management, and systems/network administration expertise.

Prior to joining F5, MacVittie was a Senior Technology Editor at Network Computing, where he conducted product research and evaluated storage and server systems, as well as development and outsourcing solutions. He has authored numerous articles on a variety of topics aimed at IT professionals. MacVittie holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Northern Michigan University, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.

@CloudExpo Stories
BMC Software plans to acquire assets of CDB Software, Inc., a mainframe data management company that has developed utilities for managing IBM DB2 databases with virtually no outage. Focusing on the availability of mission-critical applications is strategic for BMC as it continues to help its customers transform IT into a competitive advantage for their business. CDB's technology complements BMC's existing mainframe data management portfolio, which includes software utilities for DB2 administrat...
Cloud Technology Partners on Wednesday announced it has been recognized by the Modern Infrastructure Impact Awards as one of the Best Amazon Web Services (AWS) Consulting Partners. Selected by the editors of TechTarget's SearchDataCenter.com, and by votes from customers and strategic channel partners, the companies acknowledged by the Modern Infrastructure Impact Awards represent the top providers of cloud consulting services for AWS including application migration, application development, inf...
"ElasticBox is an enterprise company that makes it very easy for developers and IT ops to collaborate to develop, build and deploy applications on any cloud - private, public or hybrid," stated Monish Sharma, VP of Customer Success at ElasticBox, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at DevOps Summit, held Nov 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
“We help people build clusters, in the classical sense of the cluster. We help people put a full stack on top of every single one of those machines. We do the full bare metal install," explained Greg Bruno, Vice President of Engineering and co-founder of StackIQ, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 15th Cloud Expo, held Nov 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Axios Systems on Tuesday announced it has selected CenturyLink Cloud as the hosting platform for Axios Systems’ IT Service Management (ITSM) solutions in Canada. CenturyLink, a global provider of communications and IT services, joins other leading technology providers across North America, Europe and APAC to help Axios’ international customers drive efficiencies and innovation across their service management provision. The arrangement with CenturyLink enables Axios to further strengthen its pres...
OneCloud Software has launched the OneCloud Partner Program. Responding to demand from prospective partners, the Program offers managed service providers (MSPs) and resellers the resources they need to grow their business with the OneCloud Recovery solution. OneCloud Recovery is an automated solution for disaster recovery/business continuity (DR/BC), which leverages Amazon Web Services as the disaster recovery site. “This is a tremendous opportunity with an innovative hybrid cloud-based DR pro...
"Blue Box has been around for 10-11 years, and last year we launched Blue Box Cloud. We like the term 'Private Cloud as a Service' because we think that embodies what we are launching as a product - it's a managed hosted private cloud," explained Giles Frith, Vice President of Customer Operations at Blue Box, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at DevOps Summit, held Nov 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
"People are a lot more knowledgeable about APIs now. There are two types of people who work with APIs - IT people who want to use APIs for something internal and the product managers who want to do something outside APIs for people to connect to them," explained Roberto Medrano, Executive Vice President at SOA Software, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at Cloud Expo, held Nov 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
An entirely new security model is needed for the Internet of Things, or is it? Can we save some old and tested controls for this new and different environment? In his session at @ThingsExpo, New York's at the Javits Center, Davi Ottenheimer, EMC Senior Director of Trust, reviewed hands-on lessons with IoT devices and reveal a new risk balance you might not expect. Davi Ottenheimer, EMC Senior Director of Trust, has more than nineteen years' experience managing global security operations and asse...
Performance is the intersection of power, agility, control, and choice. If you value performance, and more specifically consistent performance, you need to look beyond simple virtualized compute. Many factors need to be considered to create a truly performant environment. In his General Session at 15th Cloud Expo, Harold Hannon, Sr. Software Architect at SoftLayer, discussed how to take advantage of a multitude of compute options and platform features to make cloud the cornerstone of your onlin...
Puppet Labs on Wednesday released the DevOps Salary Report, based on salary data gathered from Puppet Labs' industry-recognized State of DevOps Report. The data confirms that market demand for DevOps skills is growing, and that DevOps engineers are among the highest paid IT practitioners today. That's because IT organizations today are grappling with how to be more agile and responsive to the business, while maintaining the stability of their infrastructure. DevOps practices, such as continuous ...
Software Defined Storage provides many benefits for customers including agility, flexibility, faster adoption of new technology and cost effectiveness. However, for IT organizations it can be challenging and complex to build your Enterprise Grade Storage from software. In his session at Cloud Expo, Paul Turner, CMO at Cloudian, looked at the new Original Design Manufacturer (ODM) market and how it is changing the storage world. Now Software Defined Storage companies can build Enterprise grade ...
IBM and Docker, Inc. have announced a strategic partnership that enables enterprises to more efficiently, quickly and cost effectively build and run the next generation of applications on the IBM Cloud and on prem via the Docker open platform for distributed applications. Enterprises can use the combination of IBM and Docker to create and manage a new generation of portable distributed applications that are rapidly composed of discrete interoperable Docker containers, have a dynamic lifecycle, a...
Hardware will never be more valuable than on the day it hits your loading dock. Each day new servers are not deployed to production the business is losing money. While Moore's Law is typically cited to explain the exponential density growth of chips, a critical consequence of this is rapid depreciation of servers. The hardware for clustered systems (e.g., Hadoop, OpenStack) tends to be significant capital expenses. In his session at Big Data Expo, Mason Katz, CTO and co-founder of StackIQ, disc...
SYS-CON Media announced that Splunk, a provider of the leading software platform for real-time Operational Intelligence, has launched an ad campaign on Big Data Journal. Splunk software and cloud services enable organizations to search, monitor, analyze and visualize machine-generated big data coming from websites, applications, servers, networks, sensors and mobile devices. The ads focus on delivering ROI - how improved uptime delivered $6M in annual ROI, improving customer operations by minin...
The move in recent years to cloud computing services and architectures has added significant pace to the application development and deployment environment. When enterprise IT can spin up large computing instances in just minutes, developers can also design and deploy in small time frames that were unimaginable a few years ago. The consequent move toward lean, agile, and fast development leads to the need for the development and operations sides to work very closely together. Thus, DevOps become...
"We are the top stocking distributor for HP renew products in North America. We can only sell to U.S. authorized partners and resellers for HP," explained Miguel Diazdelcastillo Jr., Sales Executive at Creative Business Solutions, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at Cloud Expo, held Nov 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
The cloud is becoming the de-facto way for enterprises to leverage common infrastructure while innovating and one of the biggest obstacles facing public cloud computing is security. In his session at 15th Cloud Expo, Jeff Aliber, a global marketing executive at Verizon, discussed how the best place for web security is in the cloud. Benefits include: Functions as the first layer of defense Easy operation –CNAME change Implement an integrated solution Best architecture for addressing network-l...
In this demo at 15th Cloud Expo, John Meza, Product Engineer at Esri, showed how Esri products hook into Hadoop cluster to allow you to do spatial analysis on the spatial data within your cluster, and he demonstrated rendering from a data center with ArcGIS Pro, a new product that has a brand new rendering engine.
DevOps Summit 2015 New York, co-located with the 16th International Cloud Expo - to be held June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY - announces that it is now accepting Keynote Proposals. The widespread success of cloud computing is driving the DevOps revolution in enterprise IT. Now as never before, development teams must communicate and collaborate in a dynamic, 24/7/365 environment. There is no time to wait for long development cycles that produce software that is obsolete...