BEE3: Microsoft, FPGAs, and the Future of Computer ArchitecturesBEE3: Microsoft, FPGAs, and the Future of Computer Architectures
Microsoft is supposed to be all about software, right?. After all, Gates and Allen didn't start off by calling the company "Microhard". But from time to time, hardware still pops up. The Microsoft Mouse, Microsoft Keyboard, and other devices come to mind. But this time around, Microsoft is going big-time hardware with a hardware platform called <a href="http://research.microsoft.com/projects/BEE3/">BEE3</a>.</p>
March 9, 2008
Microsoft is supposed to be all about software, right?. After all, Gates and Allen didn't start off by calling the company "Microhard". But from time to time, hardware still pops up. The Microsoft Mouse, Microsoft Keyboard, and other devices come to mind. But this time around, Microsoft is going big-time hardware with a hardware platform called BEE3.
The BEE3 project, led by Microsoft Research's Chuck Thacker and John Davis, focuses on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) packaged in a chassis that looks like a computer but is actually a platform that emulates architectures and changes to standard architectures.
"If you want to try out a new architecture or a new feature," Thacker says, "it's very difficult to do these days, because you have to actually build chips to build anything of substantial size. Using FPGAs, you don't have to build chips. You can design the thing and load the FPGA with some bytes that tell it what it’s supposed to do logically."
According to Thacker, the time is right for projects such as BEE3 because of the sophistication and availability of FPGAs -- and the software tools to develop for them. "They are now large enough and design tools are good enough that you can build very complex things," says Thacker. "You can use them both for architectural experimentation and for accelerating a CPU for algorithms that don't fit very well into [sequential] architecture."
BEE3, short for the "Berkeley Emulation Engine, version 3," was actually designed at University of California's Berkeley Wireless Research Center. Working along with Thacker and Davis on BEE3 are researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, MIT, Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Washington. Other partners are contributing to BEE3, as well. Function Engineering designed the heat sinks for the FPGAs and did computational fluid-dynamic modeling. Xilinx manufactures the FPGAs and the tools to design them. And Celestica (a company which also manufactures Xbox 360 game consoles) helped reduce the complexity in terms of the board design and the prototypes.
"The coolest part of this project," Davis says, "is the board design actually is better than the devices that are on it. We're actually able to look at signals at a higher frequency than the FPGAs are supposed to operate at, and that's pretty exciting."
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