TPU and hardware vs. software innovation (round 3)

tpu-2At Google IO conference this week, they revealed (see Google supercharges machine learning tasks …) that they had been designing and operating their own processor chips in order to optimize machine learning.

They called the new chip, a Tensor Processing Unit (TPU). According to Google, the TPU provides an order of magnitude more power efficient machine learning over what’s achievable via off the shelf GPU/CPUs. TensorFlow is Google’s open sourced machine learning  software.

This is very interesting, as Google and the rest of the hype-scale hive seem to have latched onto open sourced software and commodity hardware for all their innovation. This has led the industry to believe that hardware customization/innovation is dead and the only thing anyone needs is software developers. I believe this is incorrect and that hardware innovation combined with software innovation is a better way, (see Commodity hardware always loses and Better storage through hardware posts).
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Upverter, electronic design-as-a-service

Read a recent article on TechCrunch about Upverter a cloud based service supporting electronic hardware design and development.  The ultimate intent is to provide a electronic design as a service  (EDaaS) offering that’s almost equivalent to electronic design automation (EDA) tools available on the market today.

EDA tools available

I am no EDA expert but currently, they have some basic electronic design, simulation and build tools available.  These allow a person or an organization to design, simulate and build real electronic circuits, boards etc. They even provided tools for motherboard routing and layout as well as services to have a circuit manufactured.  But this all came with a cloud oriented electronic design versioning system which seemed pretty slick.

The TechCrunch article had a video of a tour of the service (also available on their website).  I was especially impressed with the rollback-undo options on the electronic circuit design pallet.  Seeing an electronic circuit being designed in almost a line by line build was interesting to say the least.

Not sure if we are talking ASICs or FPGA design yet but they certainly have the platform to support these tools if and when they develop it.  However, simulation time and cost might go off the charts for circuits including custom designed ASICs and FPGAs.

Everything seems to execute in the cloud and any EDA specifications reside in the cloud under their control as well. However, they do offer some tools to import EDA information from other tools and provide a JSON file format export of the EDA information you provide.

EDA service pricing

Pricing seemed pretty reasonable $7/month for an individual part timer, $99/month for full time user and both these include 10 CPU hrs of simulation time and can work on public and private projects.  Other pricing options are available for bigger teams and/or more part and full timers on a project.  I didn’t see any information on more simulation time but I am sure these would be available.

And if you are just interested in working on public projects the price is FREE.

Open source electronic design

Now, I am no hardware design expert but having such a cloud based service and essentially free for public projects opens up a whole new dimension in hardware design. Open source electronic hardware wouldn’t be as easy to support/perform as open source software but the advantages seem similar.  Such as, open sourced PCIe card instrumentation, an open sourced X86 CPU, perhaps even an open sourced server.

For instance in data storage alone I could foresee open sourced circuitry to perform NAND wear leveling, data compression and/or protocol handling to name just a few.  Any of these might make it easier for companies and even individuals to create their own, hardware accelerated storage systems.

Unclear what IP licensing requirements would be for open sourced hardware. I am certainly no lawyer but something akin to GPL might be required to help create the ecosystem of open sourced electronic design.

A new renaissance of hardware innovation?

Innovation in hardware design has always been harder mostly because of the cost and time involved.  Now Upverter doesn’t seem to do much about the time involved but it can have a bearing on the cost’s associated with electronic design if they can scale up their service to provide more sophisticated EDA tools.

Nonetheless, the advantages of hardware innovation are many and include speeding up processing by orders of magnitude over what can often be done in software alone. (For more please see our posts on Better storage through hardwareCommodity hardware always loses and Commodity hardware debates heat up again). So anything which can make hardware innovation easier to accomplish is a good thing in my book.

Also having these sorts of tools available in the cloud opens up a whole array of educational opportunities never before available.  EDA tools were never cheap and if schools had access to some of these they were often limited to only a few select students.  So with cloud based service that’s essentially free for open sourced circuit design this should no longer be a problem.

Finally, I firmly believe having more hardware designers is a good thing, having the ability to contribute and collaborate on hardware design for free is a great thing and anything that makes it easier to innovate in electronic hardware design is an important step and deserves our support.

It appears that electronic design is undergoing a radical shift from an enterprise/organizational based endeavor back to something a single person can do from anywhere connected to the internet.  Some would say this is back to the roots of electronic design when this could all be done in a garage, with a soldering iron and some electronic componentry.

Comments?

Photo Credit: 439 – Circuit Board Texture by Patrick Hoesly