The following is a special contribution to this blog by by CCC Executive Council Member Mark D. Hill of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Times they are a changing. In the 20th century many researchers and companies innovated within a layer (or two) of the computing software-hardware stack. Today there is pressure and opportunity to innovate across layers, as argued in a 2012 CCC white paper on 21st Century Computer Architecture.
A fantastic example of this cross-layer innovation was recently presented in the International Symposium on Computer Architecture (ISCA) by Putman et al. “A Reconfigurable Fabric for Accelerating Large-Scale Datacenter Services” and reported in WIRED by Robert McMillan “Microsoft Supercharges Bing Search With Programmable Chips.”
Microsoft Researchers, led by Drs. Doug Burger and Derek Chiou, have developed the Catapult reconfigurable fabric to accelerate important datacenter applications, such as the Microsoft Bing search engine. The new hardware is an I/O (PCIe) board that includes a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) chip, local memory and 10GB SAS connectors. Each board is attached to a server and SAS cables interconnect the boards from 48 servers. In the evaluation, a modified version of Bing uses the new hardware to perform part of the search ranking function. Under high load, the researcher finds that the new hardware can both improve throughput and reduce tail latency.
Perhaps it is time for all computer scientists to learn more about hardware.