Breaking the abstractions for productivity and performance in the era of specialization

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Park, Jongsea
Esmaeilzadeh, Hadi
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Over the last decades, general-purpose computing stack and its abstractions have provided both performance and productivity, which have been the main drivers for the revolutionary advances in IT industry. However, the computational demand of emerging applications grows rapidly, and the rate of data generation exceeds the level where the capabilities of current computing systems can match. The challenges have coincided with the Dark Silicon era in which conventional technologies offer insufficient performance and energy efficiency. Thus, it is timely to move beyond conventional techniques and explore radical approaches that can overcome the limitations of general-purpose systems and deliver large gains in performance and efficiency. One such approach is specialization, where the hardware and systems are developed for a domain of applications. However, the specialization creates a tension between the performance and productivity, since (1) programmers need to delve into the details of specialized hardware, and (2) perform low-level programming. Hence, the objectives are (1) delivering large gains in performance and efficiency (2) while retaining automation and productivity through high-level abstractions. Achieving both of these conflicting objectives is a crucial challenge to place the specialization techniques in a position of practical utility, which is the main focus of this dissertation research. My works offer algorithm-driven computing stacks, which span from algorithms and languages to micro-architectural designs. I have primarily focused on two paradigms of specialization: acceleration and approximation. A growing number of commercial and enterprise systems increasingly rely on compute-intensive Machine Learning (ML) algorithms. Hardware accelerators offer several orders of magnitude higher performance than general-purpose processors and provide a promising path forward to accommodate the needs of ML algorithms. Even software companies have begun to incorporate various forms of accelerators in their data centers. Microsoft's Project Brainwave integrated FPGAs in datacenter scale for real-time AI calculations and Google developed the TPU as a specialized matrix multiplication engine for machine learning. However, not only do the benefits come with the cost of lower programmability, but also the acceleration requires long development cycles and extensive expertise in hardware design. Moreover, conventionally, accelerators are integrated with the existing computing stack by profiling hot regions of code and offloading the computation to the accelerators. This approach is suboptimal since the stack is designed and optimized merely for CPUs, the sole processing platform up until very recently. To tackle these challenges, we developed cross-stack and algorithm-hardware co-designed solutions that rebuild the computing stack for acceleration of machine learning. These solutions break the conventional abstractions of computing stack by reworking the entire layers of computing stack, which include programming language, compiler, system software, accelerator architecture, and circuit generator. Approximate computing is another form of specialization, which brings forth an unconventional yet innovative computing paradigm that trades accuracy of computation for otherwise hard-to-achieve performance and efficiency. This new computing paradigm is built upon the property that emerging applications (e.g., sensor processing, translation, vision, and data analytics) are increasingly tolerant to imprecision. Leveraging this property, approximation techniques are able to provide orders of magnitude higher performance and efficiency gains, while maintaining the acceptable level of functionalities. However, these techniques are only pragmatic when (1) they are easy to use for the programmers, and (2) they produce acceptable output quality from the perspective of application users. To this end, my research efforts for approximation focus on improving productivity and utility of approximation technologies by developing programming language and crowdsourcing-based software engineering solutions.
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