Shifting to an FPGA Data Center Future: How are FPGAs a Potential Solution?

April 04, 2022 by Jake Hertz

As data centers are put under more pressure, EEs are looking at field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) as a potential solution. However, how could they be useful, and who is ramping up their research efforts?

Today more than ever, the data center is being put under enormous strain. Between the increasing popularity of cloud computing, the high rate of data creation, and new compute-intensive applications like machine learning, our current data center infrastructures are being pushed to their limits.

To help ensure that the data center of the future will be able to keep up with these trends and continually improve performance, engineers are reimagining data center computing hardware altogether. 

From this, one of the most important pieces of hardware for the data center is the FPGA


A high-level overview of an FPGA. Image used courtesy of Stemmer Imaging


A recently announced center, the Intel/VMware Crossroads 3D-FPGA Academic Research Center, is hoping to spur the improvement of FPGA technology explicitly for data centers.

In this article, we’ll talk about the benefits of FPGAs for the data center and how the new research center plans to improve the technology even further. 


A Shift to Accelerators 

There are currently two major trends in the data center that are driving the future of the field: an increase in data traffic and an increase in computationally-intensive applications.

The challenge here is that, not only must the data centers be able to handle increased data and tougher computations, but there is a greater demand to do this at lower power and higher performance than ever before. 

To achieve this, engineers have shifted away from more general-purpose computing hardware, such as central processing units (CPUs) and graphics processing units (GPUs), and instead, employ hardware accelerators.


An example of heterogeneous architecture, which is becoming the norm in the data center.

An example of heterogeneous architecture, which is becoming the norm in the data center. Image used courtesy of Zhang et al


Engineers can achieve higher performance and low power computation with application-specific computing blocks than previously possible. To many, a heterogeneous computing architecture consisting of accelerators, GPUs, and CPUs, is the widely accepted path forward for future data centers.


Benefits of FPGAs for the Data Center

FPGAs are uniquely positioned to benefit the data center for several reasons.

First off, FPGAs are highly customizable, meaning that they can be configured for use as an application-specific hardware accelerator. 

In the context of the data center, engineers can configure FPGAs for applications like machine learning, networking, or security. Due to their software-defined nature, FPGAs offer easier design flows and shorter time to market accelerators than an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC).


An example diagram showing how FPGAs can be dynamically reconfigured.

An example diagram showing how FPGAs can be dynamically reconfigured. Image used courtesy of Wang et al


Secondly, FPGAs can offer the benefits of versatility. Since an FPGA's functionality can be defined purely by HDL code, a single FPGA can serve many purposes. This functionality could help reduce complexity and create uniformity in a system. 

Instead of needing a variety of different hardened ASICs, a single FPGA can be configured and reconfigured for various applications, opening the door to further optimization of hardware resources. 

Thus, some FPGAs can be reconfigured in real-time based on the application being run, meaning a single FPGA can serve as many roles as needed.


A 3D-FPGA Academic Research Center

Recently, the Intel/VMware Crossroads 3D-FPGA Academic Research Center was announced as a multi-university effort to improve the future of FPGA technology.

The team, which consists of researchers from the University of Toronto, UT Austin, Carnegie Mellon, and more, focuses their efforts directly on the role of FPGAs in the data center. More specifically, the group will be investigating ways to achieve 3D integration within the framework of an FPGA.

The idea is that, by being able to stack multiple FPGA dies vertically, researchers should be able to achieve a higher transistor density while also balancing performance, power, and manufacturing costs. 

Overall, the group hopes to use 3D-integration technology to create heterogeneous systems consisting of FPGAs and hardened logic- accelerators, all within a single package. The technology will seek to combine a Network-on-Chip (NoC) in a layer beneath the traditional FPGA fabric such that the NoC can control data routing while the FPGA can provide the computation needed.

Overall, the group hopes to extend the rise of in-network computing into the server with their new technologies.


FPGAs for Future Data Centers

The FPGA will undoubtedly become a key player as the data center trends towards more data and more intensive computation. 

With a new research group hoping to bolster the technology, it seems even more apparent now than ever that FPGAs are becoming a mainstay in the data center industry.



Interested in other data center innovations? Learn more in the articles down below.

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