New HSA Spec Legitimizes AMD’s CPU+GPU Approach

After nearly 3 years since the formation of the Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) Foundation, the consortium releases 1.0 version of the Architecture Spec, Programmer’s Reference Manual, Runtime Specification and a Conformance Plan.

Note: This blog is sponsored by AMD.

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UPDATE 3/17/15: Added Imagination Technologies as one of the HSA founders. C2

No one doubts the wisdom of AMD’s Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) approach that combines x86 CPU with a Radeon graphic GPU. Afterall, one SoC does it all—makes CPU decisions and drives multiple screens, right?

True. Both AMD’s G-Series and the AMD R-Series do all that, and more. But that misses the point.

In laptops this is how one uses the APU, but in embedded applications—like the IoT of the future that’s increasingly relying on high performance embedded computing (HPEC) at the network’s edge—the GPU functions as a coprocessor. CPU + GPGPU (general purpose graphics processor unit) is a powerful combination of decision-making plus parallel/algorithm processing that does local, at-the-node processing, reducing the burden on the cloud. This, according to AMD, is how the IoT will reach tens of billions of units so quickly.

Trouble is, HPEC programming is difficult. Coding the GPU requires a “ninja programmer”, as quipped AMD’s VP of embedded Scott Aylor during his keynote at this year’s Embedded World Conference in Germany. (Video of the keynote is here.) Worse still, capitalizing on the CPU + GPGPU combination requires passing data between the two architectures which don’t share a unified memory architecture. (It’s not that AMD’s APU couldn’t be designed that way; rather, the processors require different memory architectures for maximum performance. In short: they’re different for a reason.)

AMD’s Scott Aylor giving keynote speech at Embedded World, 2015. His message: some IoT nodes demand high-performance heterogeneous computing at the edge.

AMD’s Scott Aylor giving keynote speech at Embedded World, 2015. His message: some IoT nodes demand high-performance heterogeneous computing at the edge.

AMD realized this limitation years ago and in 2012 catalyzed the HSA Foundation with several companies including ARM, Texas Instruments, Imagination Technology, MediaTek, Qualcomm, Samsung and others. The goal was to create a set of specifications that define heterogeneous hardware architectures but also create an HPEC programming paradigm for CPU, GPU, DSP and other compute elements. Collectively, the goal was to make designing, programming, and power optimizing easy for heterogeneous SoCs (Figure).

Heterogeneous systems architecture (HSA) specifications version 1.0 by the HSA Foundation, March 2015.

The HSA Foundation’s goals are realized by making the coder’s job easier using tools—such as an HSA version LLVM open source compiler—that integrates multiple cores’ ISAs. (Courtesy: HSA Foundation; all rights reserved.) Heterogeneous systems architecture (HSA) specifications version 1.0 by the HSA Foundation, March 2015.

After three years of work, the HSA Foundation just released their specifications at version 1.0:

  • HSA System Architecture Spec: defines H/W, OS requirements, memory model (important!), signaling paradigm, and fault handling.
  • Programmers Reference Guide: essentially a virtual ISA for parallel computing, defines an output format for HSA language compilers.
  • HSA Runtime Spec: is an application library for running HSA applications; defines INIT, user queues, memory management.

With HSA, the magic really does happen under the hood where the devil’s in the details. For example, the HSA version LLVM open source compiler creates a vendor-agnostic HSA intermediate language (HSAIL) that’s essentially a low-level VM. From there, “finalizers” compile into vendor-specific ISAs such as AMD or Qualcomm Snapdragon. It’s at this point that low-level libraries can be added for specific silicon implementations (such as VSIPL for vector math). This programming model uses vendor-specific tools but allows novice programmers to start in C++ but end up with optimized, performance-oriented, and low-power efficient code for the heterogeneous combination of CPU+GPU or DSP.

There are currently 43 companies involved with HSA, 16 universities, and three working groups (and they’re already working on version 1.1). Look at the participants, think of their market positions, and you’ll see they have a vested interest in making this a success.

In AMD’s case, as the only x86 and ARM + GPU APU supplier to the embedded market, the company sees even bigger successes as more embedded applications leverage heterogeneous parallel processing.

One example where HSA could be leveraged, said Phil Rogers, President of the HSA Foundation, is for multi-party video chatting. An HSA-compliant heterogeneous architecture would allow the processors to work in a single (virtual) memory pool and avoid the multiple data set copies—and processor churn—prevalent in current programming models.

With key industry players supporting HSA including AMD, ARM, Imagination Technologies, Samsung, Qualcomm, MediaTek and others, a lot of x86, ARM, and MIPS-based SoCs are likely to be compliant with the specification. That should kick off a bunch of interesting software development leading to a new wave of high performance applications.

Coke Machine with a Wii Mote? K-Cup Coffee Machine Marries Oculus Rift?

Talk about some kind of an weird Coke-machine-meets-Minority Report mash-up, but the day is here where vending machines will do virtual reality tricks, access your Facebook page, and be as much fun as Grand Theft Auto. And they’ll still dispense stuff.


By Jeff Moriarty (Custom Coke machine – operating screen) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

According to embedded tech experts ADLINK Technology and Intel, the intelligent vending machine is here. Multiple iPad-like screens will entertain you, suggest which product to buy, feed you social media, and take your money.

These vending machines will be IoT-enabled, connected to the cloud and multiple online databases, and equipped with multiple cameras. Onboard signal processing will respond to 3D gesture control or immerse you in a virtual reality scenario with the product you’re trying to buy. Facial recognition, voice recognition, and even following your eyes as you roam the screens will be the norm.

Facial recognition via Intel's Perceptual Computing SDK. (Courtesy: Intel Corporation.)

Facial recognition via Intel’s Perceptual Computing SDK. (Courtesy: Intel Corporation.)

For you, the customer, the vending machine experience will be fun, entertaining—and very much like a video game. For the retailer, they’re hoping to make more money off of you while using remote IoT monitoring, predictive diagnostics, and “big data” to lower their costs.

The era of the intelligent vending machine is upon us. The machine’s already connected to the Internet…and one of many billions of smart IoT nodes coming to a store near you.

Read more about them here.