Hardware acceleration

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In computing, hardware acceleration is the use of computer hardware specially made to perform some functions more efficiently than is possible in software running on a general-purpose CPU . Any transformation of data or routine that can be computed, can be calculated purely in software running on a generic CPU, purely in custom-made hardware, or in some mix of both. An operation can be computed faster in application-specific hardware designed or programmed to compute the operation than specified in software and performed on a general-purpose computer processor. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. The implementation of computing tasks in hardware to decrease latency and increase throughput is known as hardware acceleration.


Typical advantages of software include more rapid development (leading to faster times to market), lower non-recurring engineering costs, heightened portability, and ease of updating features or patching bugs, at the cost of overhead to compute general operations. Advantages of hardware include speedup, reduced power consumption, [1] lower latency, increased parallelism [2] and bandwidth, and better utilization of area and functional components available on an integrated circuit; at the cost of lower ability to update designs once etched onto silicon and higher costs of functional verification and times to market. In the hierarchy of digital computing systems ranging from general-purpose processors to fully customized hardware, there is a tradeoff between flexibility and efficiency, with efficiency increasing by orders of magnitude when any given application is implemented higher up that hierarchy. [3] [4] This hierarchy includes general-purpose processors such as CPUs, more specialized processors such as GPUs, fixed-function implemented on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), and fixed-function implemented on application-specific integrated circuit (ASICs).

Hardware acceleration is advantageous for performance, and practical when the functions are fixed so updates are not as needed as in software solutions. With the advent of reprogrammable logic devices such as FPGAs, the restriction of hardware acceleration to fully fixed algorithms has eased since 2010, allowing hardware acceleration to be applied to problem domains requiring modification to algorithms and processing control flow. [5] [6] [7]


Integrated circuits can be created to perform arbitrary operations on analog and digital signals. Most often in computing, signals are digital and can be interpreted as binary number data. Computer hardware and software operate on information in binary representation to perform computing; this is accomplished by calculating boolean functions on the bits of input and outputting the result to some output device downstream for storage or further processing.

Computational equivalence of hardware and software

Either software or hardware can compute any computable function. Custom hardware offers higher performance per watt for the same functions that can be specified in software. Hardware description languages (HDLs) such as Verilog and VHDL can model the same semantics as software and synthesize the design into a netlist that can be programmed to an FPGA or composed into logic gates of an application-specific integrated circuit.

Stored-program computers

The vast majority of software-based computing occurs on machines implementing the von Neumann architecture, collectively known as stored-program computers. Computer programs are stored as data and executed by processors, typically one or more CPU cores. Such processors must fetch and decode instructions as well as data operands from memory as part of the instruction cycle to execute the instructions constituting the software program. Relying on a common cache for code and data leads to the von Neumann bottleneck, a fundamental limitation on the throughput of software on processors implementing the von Neumann architecture. Even in the modified Harvard architecture, where instructions and data have separate caches in the memory hierarchy, there is overhead to decoding instruction opcodes and multiplexing available execution units on a microprocessor or microcontroller, leading to low circuit utilization. Intel's hyper-threading technology provides simultaneous multithreading by exploiting under-utilization of available processor functional units and instruction level parallelism between different hardware threads.

Hardware execution units

Hardware execution units do not in general rely on the von Neumann or modified Harvard architectures and do not need to perform the instruction fetch and decode steps of an instruction cycle and incur those stages' overhead. If needed calculations are specified in a register transfer level (RTL) hardware design, the time and circuit area costs that would be incurred by instruction fetch and decoding stages can be reclaimed and put to other uses.

This reclamation saves time, power and circuit area in computation. The reclaimed resources can be used for increased parallel computation, other functions, communication or memory, as well as increased input/output capabilities. This comes at the opportunity cost of less general-purpose utility.

Emerging hardware architectures

Greater RTL customization of hardware designs allows emerging architectures such as in-memory computing, transport triggered architectures (TTA) and networks-on-chip (NoC) to further benefit from increased locality of data to execution context, thereby reducing computing and communication latency between modules and functional units.

Custom hardware is limited in parallel processing capability only by the area and logic blocks available on the integrated circuit die. [8] Therefore, hardware is much more free to offer massive parallelism than software on general-purpose processors, offering a possibility of implementing the parallel random-access machine (PRAM) model.

It is common to build multicore and manycore processing units out of microprocessor IP core schematics on a single FPGA or ASIC. [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] Similarly, specialized functional units can be composed in parallel as in digital signal processing without being embedded in a processor IP core. Therefore, hardware acceleration is often employed for repetitive, fixed tasks involving little conditional branching, especially on large amounts of data. This is how Nvidia's CUDA line of GPUs are implemented.

Implementation metrics

As device mobility has increased, the relative performance of specific acceleration protocols has required new metricizations, considering the characteristics such as physical hardware dimensions, power consumption and operations throughput. These can be summarized into three categories: task efficiency, implementation efficiency, and flexibility. Appropriate metrics consider the area of the hardware along with both the corresponding operations throughput and energy consumed. [14]

Example tasks accelerated

Summing two arrays into a third array

Summing one million integers

Suppose we wish to compute the sum of integers. Assuming large integers are available as bignum large enough to hold the sum, this can be done in software by specifying (here, in C++):


This algorithm runs in linear time, in Big O notation. In hardware, with sufficient area on chip, calculation can be parallelized to take only 20 time steps using the prefix sum algorithm. [15] The algorithm requires only logarithmic time, , and space as an in-place algorithm:


This example takes advantage of the greater parallel resources available in application-specific hardware than most software and general-purpose computing paradigms and architectures.

Stream processing

Hardware acceleration can be applied to stream processing.


Examples of hardware acceleration include bit blit acceleration functionality in graphics processing units (GPUs), use of memristors for accelerating neural networks [16] and regular expression hardware acceleration for spam control in the server industry, intended to prevent regular expression denial of service (ReDoS) attacks. [17] The hardware that performs the acceleration may be part of a general-purpose CPU, or a separate unit. In the second case, it is referred to as a hardware accelerator, or often more specifically as a 3D accelerator, cryptographic accelerator, etc.

Traditionally, processors were sequential (instructions are executed one by one), and were designed to run general purpose algorithms controlled by instruction fetch (for example moving temporary results to and from a register file). Hardware accelerators improve the execution of a specific algorithm by allowing greater concurrency, having specific datapaths for their temporary variables, and reducing the overhead of instruction control in the fetch-decode-execute cycle.

Modern processors are multi-core and often feature parallel "single-instruction; multiple data" (SIMD) units. Even so, hardware acceleration still yields benefits. Hardware acceleration is suitable for any computation-intensive algorithm which is executed frequently in a task or program. Depending upon the granularity, hardware acceleration can vary from a small functional unit, to a large functional block (like motion estimation in MPEG-2).

Hardware acceleration units by application

ApplicationHardware acceleratorAcronym
Computer graphics Graphics processing unit GPU
  • CUDA
  • RTX
Digital signal processing Digital signal processor DSP
Analog signal processing Field-programmable analog array FPAA
  • FPRF
Sound processing Sound card and sound card mixer N/A
Computer networking Network processor and network interface controller NPU and NIC
  • NoC
  • TCPOE or TOE
  • I/OAT or IOAT
Cryptography Cryptographic accelerator and secure cryptoprocessor N/A
Artificial intelligence AI accelerator N/A
  • VPU
  • PNN
  • N/A
Multilinear algebra Tensor processing unit TPU
Physics simulation Physics processing unit PPU
Regular expressions [17] Regular expression coprocessorN/A
Data compression [18] Data compression acceleratorN/A
In-memory processing Network on a chip and Systolic array NoC; N/A
Any computing task Computer hardware HW (sometimes)
  • FPGA
  • ASIC
  • CPLD
  • SoC
    • MPSoC
    • PSoC

See also

Related Research Articles

Central processing unit Central component of any computer system which executes input/output, arithmetical, and logical operations

A central processing unit (CPU), also called a central processor or main processor, is the electronic circuitry within a computer that executes instructions that make up a computer program. The CPU performs basic arithmetic, logic, controlling, and input/output (I/O) operations specified by the instructions. The computer industry used the term "central processing unit" as early as 1955. Traditionally, the term "CPU" refers to a processor, more specifically to its processing unit and control unit (CU), distinguishing these core elements of a computer from external components such as main memory and I/O circuitry.

Processor design is the design engineering task of creating a processor, a key component of computer hardware. It is a subfield of computer engineering and electronics engineering (fabrication). The design process involves choosing an instruction set and a certain execution paradigm and results in a microarchitecture, which might be described in e.g. VHDL or Verilog. For microprocessor design, this description is then manufactured employing some of the various semiconductor device fabrication processes, resulting in a die which is bonded onto a chip carrier. This chip carrier is then soldered onto, or inserted into a socket on, a printed circuit board (PCB).

SIMD class of parallel computers in Flynns taxonomy, with multiple processing elements that perform the same operation on multiple data points simultaneously

Single instruction, multiple data (SIMD) is a class of parallel computers in Flynn's taxonomy. It describes computers with multiple processing elements that perform the same operation on multiple data points simultaneously. Such machines exploit data level parallelism, but not concurrency: there are simultaneous (parallel) computations, but only a single process (instruction) at a given moment. SIMD is particularly applicable to common tasks such as adjusting the contrast in a digital image or adjusting the volume of digital audio. Most modern CPU designs include SIMD instructions to improve the performance of multimedia use. SIMD is not to be confused with SIMT, which utilizes threads.

In computing, a vector processor or array processor is a central processing unit (CPU) that implements an instruction set containing instructions that operate on one-dimensional arrays of data called vectors, compared to the scalar processors, whose instructions operate on single data items. Vector processors can greatly improve performance on certain workloads, notably numerical simulation and similar tasks. Vector machines appeared in the early 1970s and dominated supercomputer design through the 1970s into the 1990s, notably the various Cray platforms. The rapid fall in the price-to-performance ratio of conventional microprocessor designs led to the vector supercomputer's demise in the later 1990s.

System on a chip type of integrated circuit

A system on chip is an integrated circuit that integrates all components of a computer or other electronic system. These components typically include a central processing unit (CPU), memory, input/output ports and secondary storage – all on a single substrate or microchip, the size of a coin. It may contain digital, analog, mixed-signal, and often radio frequency signal processing functions, depending on the application. As they are integrated on a single substrate, SoCs consume much less power and take up much less area than multi-chip designs with equivalent functionality. Because of this, SoCs are very common in the mobile computing and edge computing markets. Systems-on-chip are typically fabricated using metal–oxide–semiconductor (MOS) technology, and are commonly used in embedded systems and the Internet of Things.

Parallel computing programming paradigm in which many calculations or the execution of processes are carried out simultaneously

Parallel computing is a type of computation in which many calculations or the execution of processes are carried out simultaneously. Large problems can often be divided into smaller ones, which can then be solved at the same time. There are several different forms of parallel computing: bit-level, instruction-level, data, and task parallelism. Parallelism has long been employed in high-performance computing, but it's gaining broader interest due to the physical constraints preventing frequency scaling. As power consumption by computers has become a concern in recent years, parallel computing has become the dominant paradigm in computer architecture, mainly in the form of multi-core processors.

Digital signal processor specialized microprocessor optimized for digital signal processing

A digital signal processor (DSP) is a specialized microprocessor chip, with its architecture optimized for the operational needs of digital signal processing. DSPs are fabricated on MOS integrated circuit chips. They are widely used in audio signal processing, telecommunications, digital image processing, radar, sonar and speech recognition systems, and in common consumer electronic devices such as mobile phones, disk drives and high-definition television (HDTV) products.

Reconfigurable computing is a computer architecture combining some of the flexibility of software with the high performance of hardware by processing with very flexible high speed computing fabrics like field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). The principal difference when compared to using ordinary microprocessors is the ability to make substantial changes to the datapath itself in addition to the control flow. On the other hand, the main difference from custom hardware, i.e. application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) is the possibility to adapt the hardware during runtime by "loading" a new circuit on the reconfigurable fabric.

In parallel computer architectures, a systolic array is a homogeneous network of tightly coupled data processing units (DPUs) called cells or nodes. Each node or DPU independently computes a partial result as a function of the data received from its upstream neighbors, stores the result within itself and passes it downstream. Systolic arrays were invented by H. T. Kung and Charles Leiserson who described arrays for many dense linear algebra computations for banded matrices. Early applications include computing greatest common divisors of integers and polynomials. They are sometimes classified as multiple-instruction single-data (MISD) architectures under Flynn's taxonomy, but this classification is questionable because a strong argument can be made to distinguish systolic arrays from any of Flynn's four categories: SISD, SIMD, MISD, MIMD, as discussed later in this article.

Coprocessor supplementary computer processor that executes under the logical control of a main processor

A coprocessor is a computer processor used to supplement the functions of the primary processor. Operations performed by the coprocessor may be floating point arithmetic, graphics, signal processing, string processing, cryptography or I/O interfacing with peripheral devices. By offloading processor-intensive tasks from the main processor, coprocessors can accelerate system performance. Coprocessors allow a line of computers to be customized, so that customers who do not need the extra performance do not need to pay for it.

Stream processing is a computer programming paradigm, equivalent to dataflow programming, event stream processing, and reactive programming, that allows some applications to more easily exploit a limited form of parallel processing. Such applications can use multiple computational units, such as the floating point unit on a graphics processing unit or field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), without explicitly managing allocation, synchronization, or communication among those units.

In computer architecture, a transport triggered architecture (TTA) is a kind of processor design in which programs directly control the internal transport buses of a processor. Computation happens as a side effect of data transports: writing data into a triggering port of a functional unit triggers the functional unit to start a computation. This is similar to what happens in a systolic array. Due to its modular structure, TTA is an ideal processor template for application-specific instruction-set processors (ASIP) with customized datapath but without the inflexibility and design cost of fixed function hardware accelerators.

Hardware emulation Emulating hardware devices in IC design

In integrated circuit design, hardware emulation is the process of imitating the behavior of one or more pieces of hardware with another piece of hardware, typically a special purpose emulation system. The emulation model is usually based on a hardware description language source code, which is compiled into the format used by emulation system. The goal is normally debugging and functional verification of the system being designed. Often an emulator is fast enough to be plugged into a working target system in place of a yet-to-be-built chip, so the whole system can be debugged with live data. This is a specific case of in-circuit emulation.

VideoCore low-power mobile multimedia processor

VideoCore is a low-power mobile multimedia processor originally developed by Alphamosaic Ltd and now owned by Broadcom. Its two-dimensional DSP architecture makes it flexible and efficient enough to decode a number of multimedia codecs in software while maintaining low power usage. The semiconductor intellectual property core has been found so far only on Broadcom SoCs.

Computer architecture Set of rules and methods that describe the functionality, organization, and implementation of computer systems

In computer engineering, computer architecture is a set of rules and methods that describe the functionality, organization, and implementation of computer systems. Some definitions of architecture define it as describing the capabilities and programming model of a computer but not a particular implementation. In other definitions computer architecture involves instruction set architecture design, microarchitecture design, logic design, and implementation.

This is a glossary of terms relating to computer hardware – physical computer hardware, architectural issues, and peripherals.

Heterogeneous computing refers to systems that use more than one kind of processor or cores. These systems gain performance or energy efficiency not just by adding the same type of processors, but by adding dissimilar coprocessors, usually incorporating specialized processing capabilities to handle particular tasks.

In computing, a compute kernel is a routine compiled for high throughput accelerators, separate from but used by a main program. They are sometimes called compute shaders, sharing execution units with vertex shaders and pixel shaders on GPUs, but are not limited to execution on one class of device, or graphics APIs.

A vision processing unit (VPU) is an emerging class of microprocessor; it is a specific type of AI accelerator, designed to accelerate machine vision tasks.

An AI accelerator is a class of specialized hardware accelerator or computer system designed to accelerate artificial intelligence applications, especially artificial neural networks, machine vision and machine learning. Typical applications include algorithms for robotics, internet of things and other data-intensive or sensor-driven tasks. They are often manycore designs and generally focus on low-precision arithmetic, novel dataflow architectures or in-memory computing capability. As of 2018, a typical AI integrated circuit chip contains billions of MOSFET transistors.


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