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Hastlayer - turning software into hardware for faster computing

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Hastlayer (Hastlayer - turning software into hardware for faster computing)

Reporting period: 2020-01-01 to 2020-06-30

High-level synthesis (HLS) is increasingly popular for the design of high-performance and energy-efficient heterogeneous systems, shortening time-to-market and addressing today’s system complexity. HLS allows designers to work at a higher-level of abstraction by using a software program to specify the hardware functionality. Additionally, HLS is particularly interesting for designing field-programmable gate array circuits (FPGA), where hardware implementations can be easily refined and replaced in the target device. Recent years have seen much activity in this research community, with a plethora of HLS tool offerings, from industry and academia, but none of these solutions are widespread for industrial use.
FPGA development requires certain skills, specific knowledge and specialised hardware. Gathering these are expensive and due to this limitation can only be achieved by a small fraction of software developers, which makes access to FPGAs equally limited. With our solution we aim to give access to those software engineers who lack this specific knowledge.
We have initially recognised the industrial need for HLS for FPGA in 2012 and that is when the first concept of Hastlayer was born. In 2013 we established Lombiq with the purpose to develop the perfect HLS tool (Hastlayer) for industry although the actual development did not start until 2015 as we had to raise capital through other means. We became experts in Orchard web content management system offering development, training and consulting. We have also developed and successfully commercialised our own product, DotNest SaaS for Orchard that is available through Microsoft Azure. Our work has allowed us to grow in size and use the generated revenues to fund the Hastlayer development that has reached a stage where Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure can integrate it into their marketplace.
Hastlayer provides an HLS (Software as a Service) service consisting of multiple tools that allows desktop, web and mobile software developers to increase the performance of their computationally intensive and resource demanding applications by executing critical parts of their software on a specialised hardware architecture remotely or locally (FPGA) without having the in-depth knowledge of such platforms. This solution results in lower development cost when it comes to optimisation, cheaper hardware when it comes to speeding up a slow program but most importantly makes continuous development exceptionally fast.
Before we can turn Hastlayer into a product we carried out a feasibility study in order to define use cases, tackle security issues and develop the most suitable business model to maximize market penetration.
The main aim of the feasibility study was to identify the market entry point for Hastlayer in terms of application area. In order to do this, we have carried out an extensive market research and also continued in-depth discussions with present and potential future users of the system. Based on this work we have achieved the following:
• We have identified the main application areas where Hastlayer can be used according to our wide range of contacts.
• We have analysed the market for each application area and identified where Hastlayer can have the most significant impact.
• We have selected our market entry point to be space related applications and have adjusted our business model to be specific for this scenario.
• We have identified potential piloting partners who can test, validate and demonstrate our technology in specific areas.
• We have identified the risks related to the Hastlayer product development and derived necessary mitigation actions for all of them.
• We have expanded our Freedom to Operate analyses and update our intellectual property protection strategy accordingly.
• We have updated our preliminary business plan taking into consideration the characteristics of the market dynamics of our market entry application area.
The outcome of the feasibility study has underlined the novelty of our Hastlayer system. We validated that Hastlayer is the first commercially available tool for developers of the .NET platform to use FPGAs as hardware accelerators without the requirement of having to learn low-level hardware design practices. The tool automatically converts standard .NET constructs into their low-level hardware equivalents, supporting .NET's parallel programming and resource usage optimization features. Hastlayer provides automated support for the whole workflow of using FPGA hardware accelerators from software. This includes not just the actual hardware implementation of the user's algorithm, but also the hardware-side framework to embed the user’s algorithm, as well as the communication between the host computer and the FPGA behind the scenes. All of this integrates into the natural software development practices. Other tools usually only provide parts of this workflow: commonly only the user's algorithm is converted, but the burden of making that accessible from the host computer is still on the user (which can be a level of effort orders of magnitude bigger than developing the algorithm itself).
Through applying Hastlayer for the cloud computing and space industry as a market entry point, we can have a significant impact on the sector and open up further opportunities for other application areas.
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Conference table (CoNGA 2019)