Reconfigurable Computing


A reconfigurable processor is a microprocessor with erasable hardware that can rewire itself dynamically. This allows the chip to adapt effectively to the programming tasks demanded by the particular software they are interfacing with at any given time. Ideally, the reconfigurable processor can transform itself from a video chip to a central processing unit (CPU) to a graphics chip, for example, all optimized to allow applications to run at the highest possible speed. Charles Fox, president and CEO of Chameleon Systems in San Jose, says that the new chips are like providing a "chip on demand." In practical terms, this ability can translate to immense flexibility in terms of device functions. For example, a single device could serve as both a camera and a tape recorder (among numerous other possibilities): you would simply download the desired software and the processor would reconfigure itself to optimize performance for that function. According to a recent Red Herring magazine article, that type of device versatility may be available by 2002.

Reconfigurable processors, currently available from Chameleon Systems, Billions of Operations (BOPS), and PACT (originally, for Parallel Array Computing Technology although the company is now just known by the acronym), are competing for market share with traditional hard-wired chips and several types of programmable microprocessors. Programmable chips have been in existence for over ten years. Digital signal processors (DSPs), for example, are high-performance programmable chips used in cell phones, automobiles, and various types of music players. Another version, programmable logic chips are equipped with arrays of memory cells that can be programmed to perform hardware functions using software tools. These are more flexible than the specialized DSP chips but also slower and more expensive. Hard-wired chips are the oldest, cheapest, and fastest - but also the least flexible - of all the options. Will Strauss, president and of Forward Concepts (an Arizona market research company), predicts that reconfigurable processors will cut into other microchip markets to grow from $330 million (in 2000) to $1.3 billion by 2004.