Team Compsys

Overall Objectives
Scientific Foundations
Application Domains
New Results
Contracts and Grants with Industry
Other Grants and Activities

Section: Overall Objectives

General presentation

Classically, an embedded computer is a digital system, part of a larger system (appliances like phones, TV sets, washing machines, game platforms, or even larger systems like radars and sonars), which is not directly accessible to the user. In particular, this computer is not programmable in the usual way. Its program, if it exists, has been loaded as part of the manufacturing process, and is seldom (or never) modified. Today, as the embedded systems market grows and evolves, this view of embedded systems tend to be too restrictive. Many aspects of general-purpose computers apply to embedded platforms. Nevertheless, embedded systems remain characterized by application types, constraints (cost, power, efficiency, heterogeneity), market. The term embedded system has been used for naming a wide variety of objects. More precisely, there are two categories of so-called embedded systems : a) control-oriented and hard real-time embedded systems (automotive, plant control, airplanes, etc.); b) compute-intensive embedded systems (signal processing, multi-media, stream processing) processing large data sets with parallel and/or pipelined execution. Compsys is primarily concerned with this second type of embedded systems, now referred to as embedded computing systems .

Today, the industry sells many more embedded processors than general-purpose processors; the field of embedded systems is one of the few segments of the computer market where the European industry still has a substantial share, hence the importance of embedded system research in the European research initiatives. Our priority towards embedded software is motivated by the following observations: a) the embedded system market is expanding, among many factors, one can quote pervasive digitalization, low cost products, appliances, etc.; b) computer science for embedded systems is not well developed in France, especially if one considers the importance of actors like Alcatel, stm icroelectronics, Matra, Thales, etc.; c) since embedded systems have an increasing complexity, new problems are emerging: computer-aided design, shorter time-to-market, better reliability, modular design, and component reuse.

A specific aspect of embedded computing systems is its use of various kinds of processors, with many particularities (instruction sets, registers, data and instruction caches) and constraints (code size, performance, storage). The development of compilers is central for this industry, as selling a platform without its programming environment and compiler would not be acceptable. To cope with such a range of different processors, the development of robust, generic (retargetable), though efficient, compilers is mandatory. But unlike more standard compilation for general-purpose processors, compilers for embedded processors can be more aggressive (i.e., take more time to optimize) for optimizing some important parts of applications. This opens a new range of optimizations. Another interesting aspect is the introduction of intermediate platform-independent languages (Java bytecode-type) for which, on the contrary, lighter compilation mechanisms (i.e., faster and less memory-consuming) must be developed for this dynamic/just-in-time compilation. Our objective for compilation for embedded computing systems is to revisit past compilation techniques, to deconstruct them, to improve them, and to develop new techniques taking into account constraints of embedded processors.

As for high-level synthesis (HLS), several compilers/systems have appeared, after some first unsuccessful industrial attempts in the past. These tools are mostly based on C or C++ as for example SystemC, vcc , CatapultC, Altera C2H, pico Express. Academic projects also exist such as Flex and Raw at mit , Piperench at Carnegie-Mellon University, Compaan at the University of Leiden, Ugh/Disydent at LIP6 (Paris), Gaut at Lester (Bretagne), MMAlpha (Insa-Lyon), and others. In general, the support for parallelism in HLS tools is minimal, especially in industrial tools. Also, the basic problem that these projects have to face is that the definition of performance is more complex than in classical systems. In fact, it is a multi-criteria optimization problem and one has to take into account the execution time, the size of the program, the size of the data structures, the power consumption, the manufacturing cost, etc. The incidence of the compiler on these costs is difficult to assess and control. Success will be the consequence of a detailed knowledge of all steps of the design process, from a high-level specification to the chip layout. A strong cooperation between the compilation and chip design communities is needed. The main expertise in Compsys for this aspect is in the parallelization and optimization of regular computations . Hence, we will target applications with a large potential parallelism, but we will attempt to integrate our solutions into the big picture of cad environments.

More generally, the aims of Compsys are to develop new compilation and optimization techniques for the field of embedded computing system design. This field is large, and Compsys does not intend to cover it in its entirety. As previously mentioned, we are mostly interested in the automatic design of accelerators, for example designing a vlsi circuit for a digital filter, and in the development of new back-end compilation strategies for embedded processors. We study code transformations that optimize features such as time performances, power consumption, code and die size, memory constraints, compiler reliability. These features are related to embedded systems but some are not specific to them. The code transformations we develop are both at source level and at assembly level. A specificity of Compsys is to mix a solid theoretical basis for all code optimizations we introduce with algorithmic/software developments. Within Inria, our project is related to the “architecture and compilation” theme, more precisely code optimization, as some of the research in Alchemy and Alf (previously known as Caps), and to high-level architectural synthesis, as some of the research in Cairn.

Before its creation, all members of Compsys have been working, more or less, in the field of automatic parallelization and high-level program transformations. Paul Feautrier was the initiator of the polytope model for program transformations in the 90s and, before coming to Lyon, started to be more interested in programming models and optimizations for embedded applications, in particular through collaborations with Philips. Alain Darte worked on mathematical tools and algorithmic issues for parallelism extraction in programs. He became interested in the automatic generation of hardware accelerators, thanks to his stay at HP Labs in the Pico project in Spring 2001. Antoine Fraboulet did a PhD with Anne Mignotte – who was working on high-level synthesis (HLS) – on code and memory optimizations for embedded applications. Fabrice Rastello did a PhD on tiling transformations for parallel machines, then was hired by STMicroelectronics where he worked on assembly code optimizations for embedded processors. Tanguy Risset worked for a long time on the synthesis of systolic arrays, being the main architect of the HLS tool MMAlpha. Most researchers in France working on high-performance computing (automatic parallelization, languages, operating systems, networks) moved to grid computing at the end of 90s. We thought that applications, industrial needs, and research problems were more important in the design of embedded platforms. Furthermore, we were convinced that our expertise on high-level code transformations could be more useful in this field. This is the reason why Tanguy Risset came to Lyon in 2002 to create the Compsys team with Anne Mignotte and Alain Darte, before Paul Feautrier, Antoine Fraboulet, Fabrice Rastello, and finally Christophe Alias joined the group.

It may be worth to quote Bob Rau and his colleagues (IEEE Computer, sept. 2002):

"Engineering disciplines tend to go through fairly predictable phases: ad hoc, formal and rigorous, and automation. When the discipline is in its infancy and designers do not yet fully understand its potential problems and solutions, a rich diversity of poorly understood design techniques tends to flourish. As understanding grows, designers sacrifice the flexibility of wild and woolly design for more stylized and restrictive methodologies that have underpinnings in formalism and rigorous theory. Once the formalism and theory mature, the designers can automate the design process. This life cycle has played itself out in disciplines as diverse as PC board and chip layout and routing, machine language parsing, and logic synthesis.

We believe that the computer architecture discipline is ready to enter the automation phase. Although the gratification of inventing brave new architectures will always tempt us, for the most part the focus will shift to the automatic and speedy design of highly customized computer systems using well-understood architecture and compiler technologies.”

We share this view of the future of architecture and compilation. Without targeting too ambitious objectives, we were convinced of two complementary facts: a) the mathematical tools developed in the past for manipulating programs in automatic parallelization were lacking in high-level synthesis and embedded computing optimizations and, even more, they started to be rediscovered frequently under less mature forms, b) before being able to really use these techniques in HLS and embedded program optimizations, we needed to learn a lot from the application side, from the electrical engineering side, and from the embedded architecture side. Our primary goal was thus twofold: to increase our knowledge of embedded computing systems and to adapt/extend code optimization techniques, primarily designed for high performance computing, to the special case of embedded computing systems. In the initial Compsys proposal, we proposed four research directions, centered on compilation methods for embedded applications, both for software and accelerators design:

These research activities were primarily supported by a marked investment in polyhedra manipulation tools and, more generally, solid mathematical and algorithmic studies, with the aim of constructing operational software tools, not just theoretical results. Hence the fourth research theme was centered on the development of these tools.


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