NSF funds Expedition into software for efficient computing in the age of nanoscale devices
The Coordinated Science Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, along with five other universities, has received a $10 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Expeditions in Computing grant that will help develop variability-aware software and hardware techniques for computing with unreliable, but energy-efficient nanoscale computer components.
The five-year grant will seek to provide solutions for the semiconductor industry as manufacturers build increasingly smaller components, circuits and chips at the nano scale even as they become less reliable and more expensive to produce. The variability in their behavior, from device to device and over their lifetimes – due to manufacturing, aging-related wear-out and different operating environments – is largely ignored by modern computer systems.
The Expeditions in Computing program rewards far-reaching agendas that “promise significant advances in the computing frontier and great benefit to society.” The program will fund three new Expeditions this year.
"Our goal is to fundamentally change the way that hardware and software work together, producing a new generation of computing machines that are adaptive and highly energy efficient,” says Rakesh Kumar, the Illinois lead on the grant. Kumar is a researcher in the Coordinated Science Laboratory and professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Work at Illinois will be particularly focused on steering the effects of variability such that software can recognize and adapt to it. We will also focus on identifying the appropriate hardware/software interfaces for exposing hardware variability to software.”
The multi-university center will be led by Rajesh Gupta, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California, San Diego. Other participating universities include the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Michigan; Stanford University; and the University of California, Irvine.
"At Illinois, our goal is always to make a real-world impact in significant areas,” said Ilesanmi Adesida, dean of Illinois’ College of Engineering. “The research conducted through this prestigious grant will provide the backbone for the next class of computing systems.”
The research team seeks to develop computing systems that will be able to sense the nature and extent of variation in their hardware circuits, and expose these variations to compilers, operating systems, and applications to drive adaptations in the software stack.
"The biggest advantage of such large projects is that you can re-examine the entire system stack as opposed to investigating piecemeal solutions,” added Kumar.
Software experts on the team will develop models and abstractions to expose the hardware’s variable specifications accurately and compactly, and to create mechanisms for the software to react to variable hardware specifications. Hardware researchers will be focused on more efficient design and test methods to ensure that device designs exhibit well-behaved variability characteristics – ones that a well-configured software stack can easily communicate with and influence.
Variability-aware computing systems would benefit the entire spectrum of embedded, mobile, desktop and server-class applications by dramatically reducing hardware design and test costs for computing systems, while enhancing their performance and energy efficiency. Many in-demand applications – from search engines to medical imaging – would also benefit, but the project’s initial focus will be on wireless sensing, software radio and mobile platforms of all kinds – with plans to transfer advances in these early areas to the marketplace.
To ensure that the project reflects real-world challenges in the computing industry, organizers have recruited a high-powered Technical Advisory Board that initially includes top industry executives from HP, ARM, IBM and Intel.
"Through this grant, researchers will seek a novel approach to solving problems in computing,” said William H. Sanders, director of the Coordinated Science Laboratory. “By teaming up with industry, they will ensure that the research they do now will benefit the computing industry in years to come.”
The Expeditions in Computing program, now in its third year, was established by NSF’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), to provide the CISE research and education community with the opportunity to pursue ambitious, fundamental research. The grants represent some of the largest single investments currently made by the directorate and the NSF.
Says Andreas Cangellaris, head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering: “Illinois is proud to join our colleagues in this ambitious effort under Rakesh’s leadership. Such efforts keep Illinois at the forefront of electrical and computer engineering.”