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From left: ECE Professors Jonathan Rose and Vaughn Betz.

The substantial role that University of Toronto researchers are having in the development of Field-programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) – the ‘chameleons’ of computer chips – was evident recently when more than half of the top 25 papers published on the subject over the past 20 years had ties to U of T.

Of the 25 papers included in the collection, 13 were authored by past and present U of T faculty and students. The collection of top papers was assembled to mark the 20th anniversary of the International Symposium on Field-programmable Gate Arrays, which this year was held in Monterey, California from February 22 to 24.

FPGAs are programmable computer chips, which gives them the unique ability to become any type of computer chip you might need. Unlike standard chips that are produced to serve one function, FPGAs can be reprogrammed based on the needs of the user at any time.

“They are like chip chameleons,” explained Professor Jonathan Rose, one of the leaders in the field and a faculty member in The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE).

Not only do FPGAs provide a high level of flexibility in established hardware, but they are also important tools for testing new designs. Developing a prototype for a new chip can be both time consuming and costly.

“To create a new chip from scratch, you have to send it to a very expensive fabrication facility where it can cost three-million dollars worth of tooling and two months worth of time to get it back,” said Professor Rose. “With FPGAs, because they are already prefabricated, you can configure it any way you wish, and it becomes that in under a second.”

Underlying FPGA development are two pillars. First, is the actual hardware itself that is the chip. The second is the software that allows the chip to be programmed.

“U of T is unique in that we are able to support both pillars of the field: the architecture of the chip – how it is made – and the software of the chip – how you are able to program it,” stated Professor Rose.

One of the world’s leading developers of the software that powers FPGAs is ECE Professor Vaughn Betz. He completed his PhD under Professor Rose’s supervision and has recently returned to U of T after serving for 11 years as the Senior Director of Software Engineering at Altera, a programmable semiconductor manufacturer.

“FPGAs have 100-million programmable switches,” Professor Betz explained. “You’re not going to program each one individually, so you need a very sophisticated computer-assisted design tool to enable and implement the design you develop.”

U of T’s strength in the field actually began at Stanford University in California, where two future faculty members – Professors Rose and Paul Chow – were post-doctoral fellows. The field of FPGAs was just beginning. and the two realized there was great potential in the applications. They brought that realization to U of T when they received faculty positions and the result has been more than 20 years of cutting-edge research.

While FPGAs were once limited to applications in laboratories and high-tech manufacturers, both Professors Rose and Betz can envision a not-too-distant future when FPGAs are common tools in everyday computing.

“FPGAs of tomorrow are likely to adapt some traditional computer architecture features to lead to entirely new devices, such as a mix of processors and programmable logic connected by an on-chip network – a very flexible system on a single chip,” stated Professor Betz.

The collection was published under the title FPGA20: Highlighting Significant Contributions from 20 Years of the International Symposium on Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (1992–2011). The papers included were selected because they “have impacted industry, described key building blocks in wide use throughout industry and academia, opened areas of research, resolved serious problems, illuminated difficult issues and illustrated innovative ways to use FPGAs.”

In addition to papers by Professors Rose and Betz, other U of T authors include: former faculty member and current Altera Fellow David Lewis; Professors Jason Anderson, Farid Najm and Greg Steffan; current and former graduate students Alexander Marquardt, Elias Ahmed, Guy Lemieux, Alireza Kaviani, Ian Kuon,Charles Eric LaForest and Paul Leventis; and, former undergraduates Ketan Padalia, Chris Wysocki and Adrian Ludwin.

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