UNB Research

“Hey Google… What’s an ODIN-II Partial Mapper for Yosys?”

Author: UNB Research

Posted on Sep 15, 2020

Category: Research , Accolades

University of New Brunswick researcher Dr. Kenneth Kent has been awarded funding from Google that will be used to help create new tools for designing special computer chips.

Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) are a special type of computer chip that can be reconfigured after manufacturing to create different functionality. The flexibility and reconfigurability of these chips makes them especially appealing for space-restricted applications, like mobile devices and data centres, and in fields that want to take advantage of their versatility, like artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Over the past three decades, FPGAs have become more versatile and more complex. Different circuit designs can be used to fulfill tasks with different energy, computation and flexibility requirements and potential, increasing the complexity of designing custom FPGAs.

“When configuring a chip, the human designer is faced with numerous choices that make the process complex and difficult,” said Dr. Kent. “Currently, these chips need to be designed by hand, with the designer making every decision about how big a block to use to balance efficiency and flexibility. Our project takes advantage of computer processing to make these decisions based on the needs and functions established by the designer, making the design process easier and more robust.”

Dr. Kent’s project is part of a multi-partner movement to help manage this complexity, and to create an open ecosystem for the creation, programming and use of these chips. Other partners include the University of Toronto, working on the backend infrastructure, and the University of California, Berkeley, working on optimization. UNB’s contribution focuses on the frontend, the part of the program that a user interacts with.

Dr. Kent was awarded $30,000 as an unrestricted gift from Google, as part of the company’s efforts to support excellent research in academia. The funding will be used to support student Jean-Philippe Legault’s work on the project.

“This is an exciting project to work on,” said Mr. Legault. “One of Dr. Kent’s former students, Dr. Panos Patros, first introduced me to the topic during my undergrad, and I was hooked. I continued to work on this topic as a side interest during my master’s, but I’ve been able to make it my main project for my PhD, and hope to continue research in this area after.”

Dr. Kent has been working in this particular area for nearly a decade, having formed a close partnership with Altera (now Intel), one of the first companies to create FPGAs. He’s excited to use the opportunity to help support the next generation of experts and connect them with the community. Earlier this year, Dr. Kent was awarded an NBIF R3 Star Mentor award, recognizing his efforts and successes in supporting graduate students.

“That’s my overall philosophy,” said Dr. Kent. “As much as I teach students and generate research, I feel that a big contribution of universities is in giving students the opportunity to work with organizations and industry, to find areas of mutual interest and build relationships, and to be the homes of exploratory research that can flow through these relationships.”

Dr. Kent’s ongoing work in this area has previously been successful in securing more than $250,000 from granting agencies and industry partners. The software developed as part of this project is used and referenced extensively around the world, including leading technology corporations and research institutions. Dr. Kent recently presented a keynote on this project at an international symposium.