Field-programmable gate arrays

maddog's Doghouse

Article from Issue 206/2018

Take some advice from Linus Torvalds and learn how to program an FPGA.

I was at LinuxCon in Beijing, China, this year, and Linus Torvalds was being interviewed onstage. During the interview, Linus said that if he were starting over in FOSS today, he might not create a kernel but instead, learn how to program a field-programmable gate array (FPGA). I found this interesting.

What is an FPGA? Traditional central processing units (CPUs) and graphics processing units (GPUs) are made of fixed circuits designed by computer engineers that form an "instruction set." This instruction set tells the hardware to do certain things when an instruction (designated by a program) is executed. All of this is controlled by a clock that acts like a drum keeping a beat and makes sure that everything works in harmony.

However, another way of building a computational unit is to build specialized circuitry that always processes data in a particular way – like "hard coding" the circuitry. Once the circuitry is set, there is only one thing that circuitry can do. Because the circuitry does not necessarily have to follow a "drumbeat," it can often solve that particular problem 10, 20, or even 100 times faster than a traditional CPU or GPU.


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