Breakthrough in FPGAs could make custom chips faster, larger

Today we are worshipping the gods of the algorithm, according to one prominent magazine. It’s not a bad comparison. Everything from search results to our machine learning efforts are the basis of a series of equations that purport to solve for something that feels almost ineffable, human. Teaching a computer to see. Helping to figure out how to take our comings and goings and turn it into a schedule. Understanding our thermostat settings and turning that into a schedule.

But if our new gods are algorithms, then the chips that are performing those complicated equations are their shrines, and the more specific the shrine, the better your prayers work. The Greeks knew that. They built shrines to each of their individual gods with statues, symbols and other trappings of faith specific to their deity of choice. When it comes to algorithms computer scientists are less vested in faith but they are aware that their equations do run faster or more efficiently on a specially designed piece of silicon. But because algorithms change over time and hardware usually stays the same, the flexibility of being able to reprogram your hardware to match your changing algorithm becomes essential. That’s why big companies like Intel and Microsoft are turning to chips called Field Programmable Gate Arrays, or FPGAs.

Intel marries custom cores to its x86 architecture to help large data center customers (like [company]eBay[/company] or [company]Facebook[/company]) improve their performance. Because when worshipping algorithms, a custom shrine makes those prayers work better, and a shrine that changes with the algorithm is the best of both worlds. But like all religions, using FPGAs extracts a price.

The challenge with custom chips is that they are slower than general purpose processors like x86 or ARM-based cores. By making them software programmable, handy for algorithms that you might want to change later, and more flexible, you sacrifice speed in getting information on and off the chip. There is generally a bottleneck when shuttling information to an FPGA, so while it can solve problems really quickly and can adapt to solve different problems with a minor change in programming, sending it the data it needs to solve that problem slows things down.

But for certain applications, such as search engine algorithms or even Microsoft’s recent choice of using FPGA’s for neural networks, the flexibility of being able to tweak your hardware is more important than the performance hit. But what if in exchange for a larger piece of silicon, you didn’t have to take the performance hit? That’s the premise behind Flex Logic, a startup that launched this week with less than $10 million in funding and the IP for an FPGA that is both flexible and wired completely differently so it doesn’t create a bottleneck in getting data onto the core.

Flex Logic CEO Geoff Tate explained that the company has changed the wiring inside the FPGA so instead of having the FPGA outside the processor you can put it directly on the chip making it an integrated package or an SoC.

This makes the total area of the eventual chip larger, but boosts performance and lowers the overall cost. The Flex Logic cores also can snap together meaning that the design of these FPGAs is fairly flexible and modular. So far Flex Logic is launching with a product called the ESLX core in a variation that offers 2,500 LUTs or look up tables (a measure of performance in FPGAs). This core can be combined with other ESLX cores to give a company more performance and each one adds about 15 cents to the overall device. That cost is mitigated by putting t on the chip as an SoC however.

The initial sample chip is in the company’s hands and customers are testing it with the fist chip expected to be in products later this year, said Tate. Because Flex Logic is selling IP, much like [company]ARM[/company] does, rather than the silicon itself, Tate expects that it will be able to translate its designs fairly rapidly to the demands of the market. It plans to make a larger and a smaller design of its ESLX core as well as to make a 40 nanometer version of the core to complement its current 28 nanometer version, but Tate is waiting to see what the market demands.

He expects the products to first appear in the networking and communications space. Other possible applications for the cores could include encryption in the security field or manufacturing software defined radios, which could be tuned to different radio protocols as needed. If we can make faster, flexible chips this is truly a breakthrough worth investigating. I’ll be keeping an eye on Flex Logic to see the customers it signs up and the tradeoffs its technology demands in the field.

IFTTT launches 3 new apps to create an easy button for the web

For the last few years If This Then That (IFTTT) has been the place to go if you wanted to customize your web experience. It was a simple way to make complex interactions between web services a reality. But now, the five-year-old company has launched three new apps and changed the name of its original app to reflect its evolving goal to make those same online interactions even more simple. In the process it thinks it may have even found a piece of its monetization strategy.

The Do family of apps

On Thursday IFTTT is launching three new apps for iOS and Android that will let people push a button on their phones to make something happen. There’s the Do Button, which let’s you press a button to trigger an action that can be as simple as turning of a light or as complicated as posting your current location to your Twitter bio. My current Do button apps allow me to turn off my Hue light in my bedside table lamp, tell my team on Slack that I’m going to be away from keyboard for a while and track how many glasses of water I’ve drunk using Numerous.

Do-Button-—-Screen-—-On-transparent

In addition to the Do Button are two other Do apps: Do Camera and Do Note. Do Camera lets you link your phone’s camera to other web services so any picture you take with the recipe gets uploaded to that service. I have one that sends pictures to Dropbox, one for Twitter and one to my email. Do Note lets you create Calendar entries, send tweets, emails or other text-based notes to services. I have one for tracking gift ideas, one for logging food to an activity tracker and one that’s empty. In each app you only get three recipes. (You can search through a list of established recipes or build your own).

In playing with the Do Button I’ve found about a 3-to-4-second delay between hitting the button and the physical action happening. This may be fine for turning my thermostat down or posting to Slack, but it’s annoying for my lights. Setting up new channels is easy and even if you’ve never used the original IFTTT service you’d probably find value in it. Even my husband thought it was pretty neat.

The power of simplicity

Like Twitter, the Do family of apps are deceptively easy to use, but also incredibly versatile. I’ve long loved IFTTT because it makes the kind of links I’ve longed for on the web easier to implement (remember the pain of trying to use Yahoo Pipes?), but for many mainstream consumers it’s still too complicated. With Do, linking two services becomes almost as easy as clicking two buttons. In an interview, IFTTT CEO Linden Tibbets said he could envision a Do button being built into web platforms much like we have Twitter and Facebook buttons today.

Do Camera recipes

Do Camera recipes

I can see it, because it’s a powerful thing to be able to easily automate actions between two services you use all the time. A command as simple as “every time I take a photo upload it to Dropbox” can take several clicks to set up today on your mobile phone, and you may not actually want all your photos to automatically upload. With Do Camera you can just take a picture from the app using the Dropbox recipe and it’s automatically saved there.

When IFTTT becomes If

As part of the transition from being a one-app company to now having four, IFTTT is changing the name of its original app to If. The app itself stays the same, but after talking with Tibbets my expectation is that we’ll see a lot more work focused around the Do family. In part that’s because that’s where the mainstream users are expected to be, but it’s also where IFTTT hopes to make its money.

Mike Harris — CEO, Zonoff Linden Tibbets — CEO, IFTTT

Mike Harris — CEO, Zonoff
Linden Tibbets — CEO, IFTTT

Speaking last year at our Structure Connect Conference Tibbets explained that he planned to monetize the service by charging consumers. Tibbets didn’t offer specifics during our chat about Do, but he did offer hints. For example, the Do apps are limited to only three recipes right now, but users might pay for more, Tibbets suggested.

Meanwhile, the If app becomes the back end of the Do family and has become a lot more powerful as a platform. After having raised $30 million IFTTT has managed to open up the If app to other companies so they can build their own If channels. Previously, If developers had to take on the task themselves, making it tough to scale the company and the channels it supported very quickly. But now it has over 120 channels according to Tibbets and some of the early companies for whom IFTTT engineers built channelsare actually now being taken over and supported by the companies themselves.

With the launch of these apps, IFTTT has seen that as we spend more of our lives online we don’t have a lot of great user interfaces to help us bridge different apps or offline and online services. The app model requires too many swipes, taps and touches to let us do what we want, and the physical interaction of pressing a button is still too dumb for software. Do combines the two and eliminates as many clicks as possible. Will consumers find that compelling enough to pay for it?

Macworld | iWorld 2012 highlights for developers

While the target audience for Macworld | iWorld is your typical consumer, there are a few vendors in attendance that are focused on reaching developers. If you’re a developer yourself, or work with developers, you might want to stop by the following vendors during the show.

Intel’s next big wireless play: It’s not smartphones

Intel’s wireless ambitions go beyond smartphones and tablets. It’s set its sights on the guts of the mobile network as well. By embracing a new network design concept called Cloud-RAN, Intel believes it can reshape wireless networks to make the best use of its chips.

Kickstarter effort turns netbooks into robots!

Got an old netbook? For a $225 Kickstarter pledge, you can turn a netbook into a telepresence robot, remotely controlling it over from a web browser or a smartphone. Over a web connection, you could even use the Oculus robot to speak with remote workers.

CES Video: PC games on Transformer Prime with Tegra 3

I was playing the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim video game today at CES; a game I play often at home on my Xbox 360 and large-screened HDTV. But I wasn’t playing on my Xbox. I was playing on an Nvidia Tegra 3 powered Android 4.0 tablet.

Apple code reveals quad-core iPhones, iPads could come soon

Apple might have quad-core iPhone and iPad devices coming in 2012, according to some code discovered deep in Apple’s iOS 5.1 pre-release software on Friday. This discovery adds fuel to the fire surrounding rumors the iPad 3 will boast a quad-core A6 processor.