Are coarse-grained overlays ready for general purpose application acceleration on FPGAs?

Jain, Abhishek Kumar; Maskell, Douglas L.; Fahmy, Suhaib A.
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Combining processors with hardware accelerators has become a norm with systems-on-chip (SoCs) ever present in modern compute devices. Heterogeneous programmable system on chip platforms sometimes referred to as hybrid FPGAs, tightly couple general purpose processors with high performance reconfigurable fabrics, providing a more flexible alternative. We can now think of a software application with hardware accelerated portions that are reconfigured at runtime. While such ideas have been explored in the past, modern hybrid FPGAs are the first commercial platforms to enable this move to a more software oriented view, where reconfiguration enables hardware resources to be shared by multiple tasks in a bigger application. However, while the rapidly increasing logic density and more capable hard resources found in modern hybrid FPGA devices should make them widely deployable, they remain constrained within specialist application domains. This is due to both design productivity issues and a lack of suitable hardware abstraction to eliminate the need for working with platform-specific details, as server and desktop virtualization has done in a more general sense. To allow mainstream adoption of FPGA based accelerators in general purpose computing, there is a need to virtualize FPGAs and make them more accessible to application developers who are accustomed to software API abstractions and fast development cycles. In this paper, we discuss the role of overlay architectures in enabling general purpose FPGA application acceleration.

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