Reconfigurable computing

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Reconfigurable computing is a computer architecture combining some of the flexibility of software with the high performance of hardware by processing with very flexible high speed computing fabrics like field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). The principal difference when compared to using ordinary microprocessors is the ability to make substantial changes to the datapath itself in addition to the control flow. On the other hand, the main difference with custom hardware, i.e. application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) is the possibility to adapt the hardware during runtime by "loading" a new circuit on the reconfigurable fabric.


The concept of reconfigurable computing has existed since the 1960s, when Gerald Estrin's paper proposed the concept of a computer made of a standard processor and an array of "reconfigurable" hardware.[1][2] The main processor would control the behavior of the reconfigurable hardware. The latter would then be tailored to perform a specific task, such as image processing or pattern matching, as quickly as a dedicated piece of hardware. Once the task was done, the hardware could be adjusted to do some other task. This resulted in a hybrid computer structure combining the flexibility of software with the speed of hardware.

In the 1980s and 1990s there was a renaissance in this area of research with many proposed reconfigurable architectures developed in industry and academia,[3] such as: Copacobana, Matrix, GARP,[4] Elixent, PACT XPP, Silicon Hive, Montium, Pleiades, Morphosys, and PiCoGA.[5] Such designs were feasible due to the constant progress of silicon technology that let complex designs be implemented on one chip. The world's first commercial reconfigurable computer, the Algotronix CHS2X4, was completed in 1991. It was not a commercial success, but was promising enough that Xilinx (the inventor of the Field-Programmable Gate Array, FPGA) bought the technology and hired the Algotronix staff.[6]


Tredennick's Classification[edit]

Table 1: Nick Tredennick’s Paradigm Classification Scheme
Early Historic Computers:
  Programming Source
Resources fixed none
Algorithms fixed none
von Neumann Computer:
  Programming Source
Resources fixed none
Algorithms variable Software (instruction streams)
Reconfigurable Computing Systems:
  Programming Source
Resources variable Configware (configuration)
Algorithms variable Flowware (data streams)

The fundamental model of the reconfigurable computing machine paradigm, the data-stream-based anti machine is well illustrated by the differences to other machine paradigms that were introduced earlier, as shown by Nick Tredennick's following classification scheme of computing paradigms (see "Table 1: Nick Tredennick’s Paradigm Classification Scheme"). [7]

Hartenstein's Xputer[edit]

Main article: Xputer

Computer scientist Reiner Hartenstein describes reconfigurable computing in terms of an anti-machine that, according to him, represents a fundamental paradigm shift away from the more conventional von Neumann machine. [8] Hartenstein calls it Reconfigurable Computing Paradox, that software-to-configware migration (software-to-FPGA migration) results in reported speed-up factors of up to more than four orders of magnitude, as well as a reduction in electricity consumption by up to almost four orders of magnitude—although the technological parameters of FPGAs are behind the Gordon Moore curve by about four orders of magnitude, and the clock frequency is substantially lower than that of microprocessors. This paradox is due to a paradigm shift, and is also partly explained by the Von Neumann syndrome (Von Neumann bottleneck).

High-performance computing[edit]

High-Performance Reconfigurable Computing (HPRC) is a computer architecture combining reconfigurable computing-based accelerators like FPGAs with CPUs or multi-core microprocessors.

The increase of logic in an FPGA has enabled larger and more complex algorithms to be programmed into the FPGA. The attachment of such an FPGA to a modern CPU over a high speed bus, like PCI express, has enabled the configurable logic to act more like a coprocessor rather than a peripheral. This has brought reconfigurable computing into the high-performance computing sphere.

Furthermore by replicating an algorithm on an FPGA or the use of a multiplicity of FPGAs has enabled reconfigurable SIMD systems to be produced where several computational devices can concurrently operate on different data, which is highly parallel computing.

This heterogeneous systems technique is used in computing research and especially in supercomputing.[9] A 2008 paper reported speed-up factors of more than 4 orders of magnitude and energy saving factors by up to almost 4 orders of magnitude.[10] Some supercomputer firms offer heterogeneous processing blocks including FPGAs as accelerators.[citation needed] One research area is the twin-paradigm programming tool flow productivity obtained for such heterogeneous systems.[11]

The US National Science Foundation has a center for high-performance reconfigurable computing (CHREC).[12] In April 2011 the fourth Many-core and Reconfigurable Supercomputing Conference was held in Europe.[13]

Commercial High Performance reconfigurable computing systems are beginning to emerge with the announcement of IBM integrating FPGAs with its POWER processor.[14]

Partial re-configuration[edit]

Partial re-configuration is the process of changing a portion of reconfigurable hardware circuitry while the other part is still running/operating. Field programmable gate arrays are often used as a support to partial reconfiguration.

Electronic hardware, like software, can be designed modularly, by creating subcomponents and then higher-level components to instantiate them. In many cases it is useful to be able to swap out one or several of these subcomponents while the FPGA is still operating.

Normally, reconfiguring an FPGA requires it to be held in reset while an external controller reloads a design onto it. Partial reconfiguration allows for critical parts of the design to continue operating while a controller either on the FPGA or off of it loads a partial design into a reconfigurable module. Partial reconfiguration also can be used to save space for multiple designs by only storing the partial designs that change between designs.

A common example for when partial reconfiguration would be useful is the case of a communication device. If the device is controlling multiple connections, some of which require encryption, it would be useful to be able to load different encryption cores without bringing the whole controller down.

Partial reconfiguration is not supported on all FPGAs. A special software flow with emphasis on modular design is required. Typically the design modules are built along well defined boundaries inside the FPGA that require the design to be specially mapped to the internal hardware.

From the functionality of the design, partial reconfiguration can be divided into two groups:[15]

  • dynamic partial reconfiguration, also known as an active partial reconfiguration - permits to change the part of the device while the rest of an FPGA is still running;
  • static partial reconfiguration - the device is not active during the reconfiguration process. While the partial data is sent into the FPGA, the rest of the device is stopped (in the shutdown mode) and brought up after the configuration is completed.


There are two styles of partial reconfiguration of FPGA devices from Xilinx: module-based and difference-based.

  • Module-based partial reconfiguration permits to reconfigure distinct modular parts of the design. To ensure the communication across the reconfigurable module boundaries, special bus macros ought to be prepared. It works as a fixed routing bridge that connects the reconfigurable module with the rest part of the design. Module-based partial reconfiguration requires to perform a set of specific guidelines during at the stage of design specification. Finally for each reconfigurable module of the design, separate bit-stream is created. Such a bit-stream is used to perform the partial reconfiguration of an FPGA.
  • Difference-based partial reconfiguration can be used when a small change is made to the design. It is especially useful in case of changing LUT equations or dedicated memory blocks content. The partial bit-stream contains only information about differences between the current design structure (that resides in the FPGA) and the new content of an FPGA. There are two ways of difference-based reconfiguration known as a front-end and back-end. The first one is based on the modification of the design in the hardware description languages (HDLs). It is clear that such a solution requires full repeating of the synthesis and implementation processes. The back-end difference-based partial reconfiguration permits to make changes at the implementation stage of the prototyping flow. Therefore there is no need for re-synthesis of the design. The usage of both methods (either front-end and back-end) leads to creation of a partial bit-stream that can be used for a partial reconfiguration of the FPGA.

Current systems[edit]

Computer emulation[edit]

An FPGA board is being used to recreate the Vector-06C computer

With the advent of affordable FPGA boards, there is an ever increasing number of students' and hobbyists' projects that seek to recreate vintage computers or implement more novel architectures. [16] [17] [18] .[19] Such projects are built with reconfigurable hardware (FPGAs), and some devices support emulation of multiple vintage computers using a single reconfigurable hardware (C-One).


Mitrionics has developed a SDK that enables software written using a single assignment language to be compiled and executed on FPGA-based computers. The Mitrion-C software language and Mitrion processor enable software developers to write and execute applications on FPGA-based computers in the same manner as with other computing technologies, such as graphical processing units (“GPUs”), cell-based processors, parallel processing units (“PPUs”), multi-core CPUs, and traditional single-core CPU clusters. (out of business)

National Instruments[edit]

National Instruments have developed a hybrid embedded computing system called CompactRIO. CompactRIO systems consist of reconfigurable chassis housing the user-programmable FPGA, hot swappable I/O modules, real-time controller for deterministic communication and processing, and graphical LabVIEW software for rapid RT and FPGA programming.


A fully FPGA-based computer addressing several markets is the COPACOBANA, the Cost Optimized Codebreaker and Analyzer and its successor RIVYERA. A spin-off company SciEngines GmbH[20] of the COPACOBANA-Project of the Universities of Bochum and Kiel in Germany currently sells the fourth generation of fully FPGA based computers. Well published configurations utilize for example 128 FPGAs per single computer making COPACOBANA and RIVYERA a well known reference platform for cryptanalysis and bioinformatics.

Comparison of systems[edit]

As an emerging field, classifications of reconfigurable architectures are still being developed and refined as new architectures are developed; no unifying taxonomy has been suggested to date. However, several recurring parameters can be used to classify these systems.


The granularity of the reconfigurable logic is defined as the size of the smallest functional unit (configurable logic block, CLB) that is addressed by the mapping tools. High granularity, which can also be known as fine-grained, often implies a greater flexibility when implementing algorithms into the hardware. However, there is a penalty associated with this in terms of increased power, area and delay due to greater quantity of routing required per computation. Fine-grained architectures work at the bit-level manipulation level; whilst coarse grained processing elements (reconfigurable datapath unit, rDPU) are better optimised for standard data path applications. One of the drawbacks of coarse grained architectures are that they tend to lose some of their utilisation and performance if they need to perform smaller computations than their granularity provides, for example for a one bit add on a four bit wide functional unit would waste three bits. This problem can be solved by having a coarse grain array (reconfigurable datapath array, rDPA) and a FPGA on the same chip.

Coarse-grained architectures (rDPA) are intended for the implementation for algorithms needing word-width data paths (rDPU). As their functional blocks are optimized for large computations and typically comprise word wide arithmetic logic units (ALU), they will perform these computations more quickly and with more power efficiency than a set of interconnected smaller functional units; this is due to the connecting wires being shorter, resulting in less wire capacitance and hence faster and lower power designs. A potential undesirable consequence of having larger computational blocks is that when the size of operands may not match the algorithm an inefficient utilisation of resources can result. Often the type of applications to be run are known in advance allowing the logic, memory and routing resources to be tailored to enhance the performance of the device whilst still providing a certain level of flexibility for future adaptation. Examples of this are domain specific arrays aimed at gaining better performance in terms of power, area, throughput than their more generic finer grained FPGA cousins by reducing their flexibility.

Rate of reconfiguration[edit]

Configuration of these reconfigurable systems can happen at deployment time, between execution phases or during execution. In a typical reconfigurable system, a bit stream is used to program the device at deployment time. Fine grained systems by their own nature require greater configuration time than more coarse-grained architectures due to more elements needing to be addressed and programmed. Therefore more coarse-grained architectures gain from potential lower energy requirements, as less information is transferred and utilised. Intuitively, the slower the rate of reconfiguration the smaller the energy consumption as the associated energy cost of reconfiguration are amortised over a longer period of time. Partial re-configuration aims to allow part of the device to be reprogrammed while another part is still performing active computation. Partial re-configuration allows smaller reconfigurable bit streams thus not wasting energy on transmitting redundant information in the bit stream. Compression of the bit stream is possible but careful analysis is to be carried out to ensure that the energy saved by using smaller bit streams is not outweighed by the computation needed to decompress the data.

Host coupling[edit]

Often the reconfigurable array is used as a processing accelerator attached to a host processor. The level of coupling determines the type of data transfers, latency, power, throughput and overheads involved when utilising the reconfigurable logic. Some of the most intuitive designs use a peripheral bus to provide a coprocessor like arrangement for the reconfigurable array. However, there have also been implementations where the reconfigurable fabric is much closer to the processor, some are even implemented into the data path, utilising the processor registers. The job of the host processor is to perform the control functions, configure the logic, schedule data and to provide external interfacing.


The flexibility in reconfigurable devices mainly comes from their routing interconnect. One style of interconnect made popular by FPGAs vendors, Xilinx and Altera are the island style layout, where blocks are arranged in an array with vertical and horizontal routing. A layout with inadequate routing may suffer from poor flexibility and resource utilisation, therefore providing limited performance. If too much interconnect is provided this requires more transistors than necessary and thus more silicon area, longer wires and more power consumption.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Estrin, G (2002). "Reconfigurable computer origins: the UCLA fixed-plus-variable (F+V) structure computer". IEEE Ann. Hist. Comput 24 (4): 3–9. doi:10.1109/MAHC.2002.1114865. 
  2. ^ Estrin, G., "Organization of Computer Systems—The Fixed Plus Variable Structure Computer", Proc. Western Joint Computer Conf., Western Joint Computer Conference, New York, 1960, pp. 33–40.
  3. ^ C. Bobda: Introduction to Reconfigurable Computing: Architectures; Springer, 2007
  4. ^ Hauser, John R. and Wawrzynek, John, "Garp: A MIPS Processor with a Reconfigurable Coprocessor", Proceedings of the IEEE Symposium on Field-Programmable Custom Computing Machines (FCCM '97, April 16–18, 1997), pp. 24–33.
  5. ^ Campi, F.; Toma, M.; Lodi, A.; Cappelli, A.; Canegallo, R.; Guerrieri, R., "A VLIW processor with reconfigurable instruction set for embedded applications", Solid-State Circuits Conference, 2003. Digest of Technical Papers. ISSCC. 2003 IEEE International, vol., no., pp. 250–491 vol. 1, 2003
  6. ^ Algotronix History
  7. ^ N. Tredennick: The Case for Reconfigurable Computing; Microprocessor Report, Vol. 10 No. 10, 5 August 1996, pp 25–27.
  8. ^ Hartenstein, R. 2001. A decade of reconfigurable computing: a visionary retrospective. In Proceedings of the Conference on Design, Automation and Test in Europe (DATE 2001) (Munich, Germany). W. Nebel and A. Jerraya, Eds. Design, Automation, and Test in Europe. IEEE Press, Piscataway, NJ, 642–649.
  9. ^ N. Voros, R. Nikolaos, A. Rosti, M. Hübner (editors): Dynamic System Reconfiguration in Heterogeneous Platforms - The MORPHEUS Approach; Springer Verlag, 2009
  10. ^ Tarek El-Ghazawi et al. (February 2008). "The promise of high-performance reconfigurable computing". IEEE Computer 41 (2): 69–76. doi:10.1109/MC.2008.65. 
  11. ^ Esam El-Araby; Ivan Gonzalez; Tarek El-Ghazawi (January 2009). "Exploiting Partial Runtime Reconfiguration for High-Performance Reconfigurable Computing". ACM Transactions on Reconfigurable Technology and Systems (TRETS) 1 (4): 1–23. doi:10.1145/1462586.1462590. 
  12. ^ "NSF center for High-performance Reconfigurable Computing". official web site. Retrieved August 19, 2011. 
  13. ^ "Many-Core and Reconfigurable Supercomputing Conference". official web site. 2011. Retrieved August 19, 2011. 
  14. ^ "Altera and IBM Unveil FPGA-Accelerated POWER Systems". HPCwire. 2014-11-17. Retrieved 2014-12-14. 
  15. ^ Wiśniewski, Remigiusz (2009). Synthesis of compositional microprogram control units for programmable devices. Zielona Góra: University of Zielona Góra. p. 153. ISBN 978-83-7481-293-1. 
  16. ^ "Apple2 FPGA". Retrieved 6 Sep 2012. 
  17. ^ "FPGA Apple". Retrieved 6 Sep 2012. 
  18. ^ Niklaus Wirth. "The Design of a RISC Architecture and its Implementation with an FPGA" (PDF). Retrieved 6 Sep 2012. [dead link]
  19. ^ Jan Gray. "Designing a Simple FPGA-Optimized RISC CPU and System-on-a-Chip" (PDF). Retrieved 6 Sep 2012. 
  20. ^ SciEngines website

Further reading[edit]

Reconfigurable computing[edit]

  • Cardoso, João M. P.; Hübner, Michael (Eds.), Reconfigurable Computing: From FPGAs to Hardware/Software Codesign, Springer, 2011.
  • S. Hauck and A. DeHon, Reconfigurable Computing: The Theory and Practice of FPGA-Based Computing, Morgan Kaufmann, 2008.
  • J. Henkel, S. Parameswaran (editors): Designing Embedded Processors. A Low Power Perspective; Springer Verlag, March 2007
  • J. Teich (editor) et al.: Reconfigurable Computing Systems. Special Topic Issue of Journal it — Information Technology, Oldenbourg Verlag, Munich. Vol. 49(2007) Issue 3
  • T.J. Todman, G.A. Constantinides, S.J.E. Wilton, O. Mencer, W. Luk and P.Y.K. Cheung, "Reconfigurable Computing: Architectures and Design Methods", IEEE Proceedings: Computer & Digital Techniques, Vol. 152, No. 2, March 2005, pp. 193–208.
  • A. Zomaya (editor): Handbook of Nature-Inspired and Innovative Computing: Integrating Classical Models with Emerging Technologies; Springer Verlag, 2006
  • J. M. Arnold and D. A. Buell, "VHDL programming on Splash 2," in More FPGAs, Will Moore and Wayne Luk, editors, Abingdon EE & CS Books, Oxford, England, 1994, pp. 182–191. (Proceedings,International Workshop on Field-Programmable Logic, Oxford, 1993.)
  • J. M. Arnold, D. A. Buell, D. Hoang, D. V. Pryor, N. Shirazi, M. R. Thistle, "Splash 2 and its applications, "Proceedings, International Conference on Computer Design, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 482–486.
  • D. A. Buell and Kenneth L. Pocek, "Custom computing machines: An introduction," The Journal of Supercomputing, v. 9, 1995, pp. 219–230.

Partial re-configuration[edit]

See also[edit]

  • FPGA: Field Programmable Gate Array

External links[edit]