What reconfigurable computing really shines in is complex mathematical-based applications. When it comes to 128-bit or 256-bit multiplications on millions of numbers, general purpose processors start to choke. Even multi-processor systems and server farms find it difficult to go through all the mathematics. This is because they are not optimized for such operations!
The networking aspect requires heavy bit manipulation that would strain general purpose processors. And when it comes to space, genetic and encryption applications, the mathematics required for each are very specific and different. Their distinctiveness make reconfigurable computers a perfect match.
FPGAs have the potential to produce computing power that has never been seen before. One of the main players in FPGA computers is Starbridge Systems who claim their HC-124 Hypercomputer with 22 Xilinx Virtex-II FPGAs can produce up to 400 Gigaflops of computing power. They have been building reconfigurable computers for several years now but has recently introduced a general purpose reconfigurable computer.
"Star Bridge, a leader in reconfigurable computing, is the first to turn FPGA chips into general-purpose computers - we call them Pensa processors. These are FPGAs instantiated by Viva software with Hyper-Specificity Processors ("HSP"). Viva "rewires" a Pensa processor many times each second to do anything a circuit can be made to do. The company believes hardwired chips will become obsolete. Conventional programming also becomes obsolete. Using object-oriented programming, the Viva programmer assembles the machine he needs, when he needs it. We call it Architecture-on-Demand."
The prospect of it seems enticing. But the technology hasn't gone anywhere. It seems most companies purchasing Starbridge Systems computers like NASA did so for their mathematical applications. Not general computing.
However, Sony recently introduced a reconfigurable processor called the VME (Virtual Mobile Engine) in their Minidisc and Discman products for DSP functions. This reconfigurable processor takes only a fourth of the power of a regular DSP performing the same functions (EETimes, July 03, 2003). Other progress in reconfigurable computing include reconfigurable radios that can change their hardware configurations to adapt to local transmission standards (EETimes, July 14, 2003).
Many in industry feel that space technology will benefit the greatest from reconfigurable computing. Reconfiguring hardware through radio transmissions is a lot cheaper than sending a rocket up with new hardware. Hopefully, like many of our other technologies, large government-sponsored agencies will invest in FPGA research and what advances they develop will eventually trickle down to us.