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The Density Advantage of Configurable Computing

Article by André DeHon published in IEEE Computer, 33(4):41--49, April 2000.

More and more, field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) are accelerating computing applications. The absolute performance achieved by these configurable machines has been impressive---often one to two orders of magnitude greater than processor-based alternatives. Configurable computing is one of the fastest, most economical ways to solve problems such as RSA (Rivest-Shamir-Adelman) decryption, DNA sequence matching, signal processing, emulation, and cryptographic attacks. But questions remain as to why FPGAs have been so much more successful than their microprocessor and DSP counterparts. Do FPGA architectures have inherent advantages? Or are these examples just flukes of technology and market pricing? Will advantages increase, decrease, or remain the same as technology advances? Is there some generalization that accounts for the advantages in these cases? The author attempts to answer these questions and to see how configurable computing fits into the arsenal of structures used to build general, programmable computing platforms.