Section: Overall Objectives
Abstract — The Cairn project-team researches new architectures, algorithms and design methods for flexible, secure, fault-tolerant, and energy-efficient domain-specific system-on-chip (SoC ). As performance and energy-efficiency requirements of SoC s, especially in the context of multi-core architectures, are continuously increasing, it becomes difficult for computing architectures to rely only on programmable processors solutions. To address this issue, we promote/advocate the use of reconfigurable hardware, i.e., hardware structures whose organization may change before or even during execution. Such reconfigurable chips offer high performance at a low energy cost, while preserving a high level of flexibility. The group studies these systems from three angles: (i) The invention and design of new reconfigurable architectures with an emphasis on flexible arithmetic operator design, dynamic reconfiguration management and low-power consumption. (ii) The development of their corresponding design flows (compilation and synthesis tools) to enable their automatic design from high-level specifications. (iii) The interaction between algorithms and architectures especially for our main application domains (wireless communications, wireless sensor networks and digital security).
Keywords — Architectures: Embedded Systems, System-on-Chip, Reconfigurable Architectures, Hardware Accelerators, Low-Power, Computer Arithmetic, Secure Hardware, Fault Tolerance. Compilation and synthesis: High-Level Synthesis, CAD Methods, Numerical Accuracy Analysis, Fixed-Point Arithmetic, Polyhedral Model, Constraint Programming, Source-to-Source Transformations, Domain-Specific Optimizing Compilers, Automatic Parallelization. Applications: Wireless (Body) Sensor Networks, High-Rate Optical Communications, Wireless Communications, Applied Cryptography.
The scientific goal of the Cairn group is to research new hardware architectures for domain-specific SoC s, along with their associated design and compilation flows. We particularly focus on on-chip integration of specialized and reconfigurable accelerators. Reconfigurable architectures, whose hardware structure may be adjusted before or even during execution, originate from the possibilities opened up by Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA)  and then by Coarse-Grain Reconfigurable Arrays (CGRA) ,  . Recent evolutions in technology and modern hardware systems confirm that reconfigurable systems are increasingly used in recent and future applications (see e.g. Intel/Altera or Xilinx/Zynq solutions). This architectural model has received a lot of attention in academia over the last two decades , and is now considered for industrial use in many application domains. One first reason is that the rapidly changing standards or applications require frequent device modifications. In many cases, software updates are not sufficient to keep devices on the market, while hardware redesigns remain too expensive. Second, the need to adapt the system to changing environments (e.g., wireless channel, harvested energy) is another incentive to use runtime dynamic reconfiguration. Moreover, with technologies at 28 nm and below, manufacturing problems strongly impact electrical parameters of transistors, and transient errors caused by particles or radiations also often appear during execution: error detection and correction mechanisms or autonomic self-control can benefit from reconfiguration capabilities.
As chip density increased, power or energy efficiency has become “the Grail” of all chip architects. With the end of Dennard scaling , multicore architectures are hitting the utilisation wall and the percentage of transistors in a chip that can switch at full frequency drops at a fast pace . However, this unused portion of a chip also opens up new opportunities for computer architecture innovations. Building specialized processors or hardware accelerators can come with orders-of-magnitude gains in energy efficiency. Since from the beginning of Cairn in 2009, we have been advocating heterogeneous multicores, in which general-purpose processors (GPPs) are integrated with specialized accelerators, especially when built on reconfigurable hardware, which provides the best trade-off between power, performance, cost and flexibility. Time has confirmed the importance of heterogeneous manycore architectures, which are prevalent today.
Standard multicore architectures enable flexible software on fixed hardware, whereas reconfigurable architectures make possible flexible software on flexible hardware.
However, designing reconfigurable systems poses several challenges: the definition of the architecture structure itself, along with its dynamic reconfiguration capabilities, and its corresponding compilation or synthesis tools. The scientific goal of Cairn is to tackle these challenges, leveraging the background and past experience of the team members. We propose to approach energy efficient reconfigurable architectures from three angles: (i) the invention and the design of new reconfigurable architectures or hardware accelerators, (ii) the development of their corresponding compilers and design methods, and (iii) the exploration of the interaction between applications and architectures.