Reprogramming Processors

Today, the once-monolithic dominance of the CPU is eroding. Where at one time it was the only processor in a computer, now it shares its space with fixed function processors (image signal processors, video decoding units, etc.), a GPU that now takes up more of the silicon budget, and depending on the application, chips that supplant it entirely. One such is Project Catapult, Microsoft’s new Field Programmable Gate Array chips that have taken over much of the work of Bing, Azure, and Office 365. FPGAs are single purpose chips that, as the name suggests, can be reprogrammed with a new algorithm for the next task. This is a painfully time consuming process, but the speed up over using a traditional CPU is so massive that Microsoft has invested heavily in focusing their cloud technology around the use of FPGAs. So heavily that Intel, long considered MS’s close partner, just bought Altera Technologies, the world’s leading FPGA maker, simply to meet the ever rising demand from Microsoft and others.

While you and I will likely not see FPGAs taking their place inside our personal computing devices in the near future, much of what we do on the web will pass through machines controlled by and running upon FPGAs. So keep an eye on this field, because it increasingly seems like it is what the future depends upon.

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