OpenCL is the key to wider FPGA adoption

Author : Alistair Winning

10 July 2012

Alistair Winning
Alistair Winning

That was the claim by Altera’s SVP of Corporate Strategy, Danny Biran, who expanded on the point...

He went on to say that that OpenCL has the dual benefit that it can give software programmers an easy entry point into programmable logic, which in turn would open new markets to the technology.

OpenCL (Open Computing Language) is a standard developed to enable programs to execute across computational platforms including CPUs and GPUs. It includes a language for writing functions that execute on OpenCL devices and APIs that can define and control the platforms. OpenCL also provides parallel computing using task-based and data-based parallelism.

These features translate well to the programmable logic world, as the trend of silicon convergence means that FPGA designs are more likely to contain various types of processing and DSP capabilities. Altera sees OpenCL as the key to program for these different cores and custom logic in one environment. OpenCL will be incorporated into Altera’s Quartus software early next year. But some customers are already leveraging OpenCL in FPGA designs using a standalone tool.

As OpenCL is intended to function across multiple platforms it may not be as optimised or as efficient as an architecture specific tool like Cuda. There are also some doubts whether OpenCL code can be manually optimised for a specific type of platform, as the standard is by nature intended to be platform independent. But Biran doesn’t see this as a problem, stating that the open nature of the environment and the positive impact on productivity and time to market will more than offset any disadvantages.

But the main benefit for OpenCL is that there are many more enterprise software programmers than those specialising in embedded software and hardware. OpenCL has the backing of huge IT companies such as Apple, AMD and nVIDIA, and Altera hopes that familiarisation with the standard will enable software developers to migrate easily to the programmable logic environment. As well as introducing enterprise programmers to FPGAs, Altera also hopes these new enterprise users will open up high value markets for FPGAs, such as hardware acceleration in servers.

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