Welcome!

AJAX & REA Authors: Manuel Weiss, Kevin Benedict, RealWire News Distribution, Tim Hinds, Andreas Grabner

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 a Technical Marketing Manager at F5 Networks. In this role, he supports outbound marketing, education, and evangelism efforts around development, storage, and IT management topics related to F5 solutions. His role includes authoring technical materials, participating in social and community-based forums, and providing guidance for the development of marketing resources. 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.

Cloud Expo Breaking News
APIs came about to help companies create and manage their digital ecosystem, enabling them not only to reach more customers through more devices, but also create a large supporting ecosystem of developers and partners. While Facebook, Twitter and Netflix were the early adopters of APIs, large enterprises have been quick to embrace the concept of APIs and have been leveraging APIs as a connective tissue that powers all interactions between their customers, partners and employees. As enterprises embrace APIs, some very specific Enterprise API Adoption patterns and best practices have started emerging. In his session at 14th Cloud Expo, Sachin Agarwal, VP of Product Marketing and Strategy at SOA Software, will talk about the most common enterprise API patterns and will discuss how enterprises can successfully launch an API program.
The social media expansion has shown just how people are eager to share their experiences with the rest of the world. Cloud technology is the perfect platform to satisfy this need given its great flexibility and readiness. At Cynny, we aim to revolutionize how people share and organize their digital life through a brand new cloud service, starting from infrastructure to the users’ interface. A revolution that began from inventing and designing our very own infrastructure: we have created the first server network powered solely by ARM CPU. The microservers have “organism-like” features, differentiating them from any of the current technologies. Benefits include low consumption of energy, making Cynny the ecologically friendly alternative for storage as well as cheaper infrastructure, lower running costs, etc.
Next-Gen Cloud. Whatever you call it, there’s a higher calling for cloud computing that requires providers to change their spots and move from a commodity mindset to a premium one. Businesses can no longer maintain the status quo that today’s service providers offer. Yes, the continuity, speed, mobility, data access and connectivity are staples of the cloud and always will be. But cloud providers that plan to not only exist tomorrow – but to lead – know that security must be the top priority for the cloud and are delivering it now. In his session at 14th Cloud Expo, Kurt Hagerman, Chief Information Security Officer at FireHost, will detail why and how you can have both infrastructure performance and enterprise-grade security – and what tomorrow's cloud provider will look like.
Today, developers and business units are leading the charge to cloud computing. The primary driver: faster access to computing resources by using the cloud's automated infrastructure provisioning. However, fast access to infrastructure exposes the next friction point: creating, delivering, and operating applications much faster. In his session at 14th Cloud Expo, Bernard Golden, VP of Strategy at ActiveState, will discuss why solving the next friction point is critical for true cloud computing success and how developers and business units can leverage service catalogs, frameworks, and DevOps to achieve the true goal of IT: delivering increased business value through applications.
MapDB is an Apache-licensed open source database specifically designed for Java developers. The library uses the standard Java Collections API, making it totally natural for Java developers to use and adopt, while scaling database size from GBs to TBs. MapDB is very fast and supports an agile approach to data, allowing developers to construct flexible schemas to exactly match application needs and tune performance, durability and caching for specific requirements.
Web conferencing in a public cloud has the same risks as any other cloud service. If you have ever had concerns over the types of data being shared in your employees’ web conferences, such as IP, financials or customer data, then it’s time to look at web conferencing in a private cloud. In her session at 14th Cloud Expo, Courtney Behrens, Senior Marketing Manager at Brother International, will discuss how issues that had previously been out of your control, like performance, advanced administration and compliance, can now be put back behind your firewall.
More and more enterprises today are doing business by opening up their data and applications through APIs. Though forward-thinking and strategic, exposing APIs also increases the surface area for potential attack by hackers. To benefit from APIs while staying secure, enterprises and security architects need to continue to develop a deep understanding about API security and how it differs from traditional web application security or mobile application security. In his session at 14th Cloud Expo, Sachin Agarwal, VP of Product Marketing and Strategy at SOA Software, will walk you through the various aspects of how an API could be potentially exploited. He will discuss the necessary best practices to secure your data and enterprise applications while continue continuing to support your business’s digital initiatives.
The revolution that happened in the server universe over the past 15 years has resulted in an eco-system that is more open, more democratically innovative and produced better results in technically challenging dimensions like scale. The underpinnings of the revolution were common hardware, standards based APIs (ex. POSIX) and a strict adherence to layering and isolation between applications, daemons and kernel drivers/modules which allowed multiple types of development happen in parallel without hindering others. Put simply, today's server model is built on a consistent x86 platform with few surprises in its core components. A kernel abstracts away the platform, so that applications and daemons are decoupled from the hardware. In contrast, networking equipment is still stuck in the mainframe era. Today, networking equipment is a single appliance, including hardware, OS, applications and user interface come as a monolithic entity from a single vendor. Switching between different vendor'...
Cloud backup and recovery services are critical to safeguarding an organization’s data and ensuring business continuity when technical failures and outages occur. With so many choices, how do you find the right provider for your specific needs? In his session at 14th Cloud Expo, Daniel Jacobson, Technology Manager at BUMI, will outline the key factors including backup configurations, proactive monitoring, data restoration, disaster recovery drills, security, compliance and data center resources. Aside from the technical considerations, the secret sauce in identifying the best vendor is the level of focus, expertise and specialization of their engineering team and support group, and how they monitor your day-to-day backups, provide recommendations, and guide you through restores when necessary.
Cloud scalability and performance should be at the heart of every successful Internet venture. The infrastructure needs to be resilient, flexible, and fast – it’s best not to get caught thinking about architecture until the middle of an emergency, when it's too late. In his interactive, no-holds-barred session at 14th Cloud Expo, Phil Jackson, Development Community Advocate for SoftLayer, will dive into how to design and build-out the right cloud infrastructure.
You use an agile process; your goal is to make your organization more agile. What about your data infrastructure? The truth is, today’s databases are anything but agile – they are effectively static repositories that are cumbersome to work with, difficult to change, and cannot keep pace with application demands. Performance suffers as a result, and it takes far longer than it should to deliver on new features and capabilities needed to make your organization competitive. As your application and business needs change, data repositories and structures get outmoded rapidly, resulting in increased work for application developers and slow performance for end users. Further, as data sizes grow into the Big Data realm, this problem is exacerbated and becomes even more difficult to address. A seemingly simple schema change can take hours (or more) to perform, and as requirements evolve the disconnect between existing data structures and actual needs diverge.
SYS-CON Events announced today that SherWeb, a long-time leading provider of cloud services and Microsoft's 2013 World Hosting Partner of the Year, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 14th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 10–12, 2014, at the Javits Center in New York City, New York. A worldwide hosted services leader ranking in the prestigious North American Deloitte Technology Fast 500TM, and Microsoft's 2013 World Hosting Partner of the Year, SherWeb provides competitive cloud solutions to businesses and partners around the world. Founded in 1998, SherWeb is a privately owned company headquartered in Quebec, Canada. Its service portfolio includes Microsoft Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, Dynamics CRM and more.
The world of cloud and application development is not just for the hardened developer these days. In their session at 14th Cloud Expo, Phil Jackson, Development Community Advocate for SoftLayer, and Harold Hannon, Sr. Software Architect at SoftLayer, will pull back the curtain of the architecture of a fun demo application purpose-built for the cloud. They will focus on demonstrating how they leveraged compute, storage, messaging, and other cloud elements hosted at SoftLayer to lower the effort and difficulty of putting together a useful application. This will be an active demonstration and review of simple command-line tools and resources, so don’t be afraid if you are not a seasoned developer.
SYS-CON Events announced today that BUMI, a premium managed service provider specializing in data backup and recovery, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 14th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 10–12, 2014, at the Javits Center in New York City, New York. Manhattan-based BUMI (Backup My Info!) is a premium managed service provider specializing in data backup and recovery. Founded in 2002, the company’s Here, There and Everywhere data backup and recovery solutions are utilized by more than 500 businesses. BUMI clients include professional service organizations such as banking, financial, insurance, accounting, hedge funds and law firms. The company is known for its relentless passion for customer service and support, and has won numerous awards, including Customer Service Provider of the Year and 10 Best Companies to Work For.
Chief Security Officers (CSO), CIOs and IT Directors are all concerned with providing a secure environment from which their business can innovate and customers can safely consume without the fear of Distributed Denial of Service attacks. To be successful in today's hyper-connected world, the enterprise needs to leverage the capabilities of the web and be ready to innovate without fear of DDoS attacks, concerns about application security and other threats. Organizations face great risk from increasingly frequent and sophisticated attempts to render web properties unavailable, and steal intellectual property or personally identifiable information. Layered security best practices extend security beyond the data center, delivering DDoS protection and maintaining site performance in the face of fast-changing threats.