Last week I attended the Xilinx Developer Forum (XDF). It was a 2-day event for software developers, system designers, data scientists, Machine Learning / AI engineers, researchers, partners, educators, and more. This is the second time I've attended XDF; last year was my first time. I found them both to be stimulating events that gave good insights about the direction that FPGA technology is taking, as well as how the industry is using it. If you ever have a chance to attend an XDF, I encourage you to do so. If you didn’t have a chance, let me give you a summary of what I saw.
Kicking Off XDF: Keynote Address
If you are a maker or a hobbyist and come to element14 to build projects or participate in our contests, roadtests, or webinars, a keynote address by a company CEO may not have an immediate pull for you. That's understandable. But let me give you a reason why this particular keynote is worth talking about: the rapid innovation in FPGA technology and its application in 5G networks, data centers, and automotive ADAS/AD systems will change the world that a good keynote address can give you the context to understand where technology is going and and may even influence what you will do and the future direction of your career. And this keynote was pretty good one. It opened with the keynote by Xilinx CEO Victor Peng and some customer testimonials by Samsung, AWS, Hitachi, Microsoft (Azure) and Pony.ai. The message was direct: Xilinx is moving ahead with its strategy of building an intelligent adaptable world. What does that mean? Well, data is proliferating so much so in our daily lives that making such complex systems function will require distributed adaptive computing platforms. This view is coming to fruition through current developments in 5G (Samsung), cloud storage and compute (AWS), cloud platforms (Microsoft Azure), ADAS systems (Hitachi), and level 4 autonomous drive systems (pony.ai). It’s rather impressive when you think about it.
Live & Learn: Plenty of Deep Dive Breakout Sessions
There’s not much speech-making at an XDF. The focus is more about helping you tackle your next application or system design. Whether you visit any of the numerous booths set up by Xilinx partners, or whether you attend the deep dive breakout sessions, the focus was on learning and education. There were quite a few sessions, including the hands-on LabZone which gave attendees a chance to test drive Vitis, or learn about Versal ACAP Architecture, Dynamic Function eXchange, Machine Learning, Integrating AWS Cloud with Xilinx at the Edge, and more. With the announcement of Vitis, which I will get into next, XDF 2019 expanded its focus from not only hardware development, software application development, and embedded software development, but also on data center acceleration applications (compute, storage and network), video/imaging, and AI science (inference performance optimization and architecting efficient neural networks, etc.).
I’ve mentioned it twice already, so let me talk about Vitis. So, what is it? Why is it significant? How can it help you? There are already articles about it on the Internet, along with Adam Taylor’s excellent article. So, let me simplify it for you, especially if you are not an FPGA hardware engineer. In a nutshell, Vitis allows a new range of developers, including software engineers and AI scientists, to take advantage of hardware adaptability without needing hardware expertise. It can plug seamlessly into open-source standard development systems and build-environments, and automatically tailors the Xilinx hardware architecture to the software or algorithmic code without the need for hardware expertise. Vitis isn't a proprietary development environment; rather, it plugs into common software developer tools and has a rich set of optimized open source libraries. Note: Vitis is separate from the Vivado™ Design Suite, which will still be supported for those who want to program using hardware code.
Avnet was a diamond sponsor at this year’s XDF. Its prominent green and white booth showcased its technology/business ecosystem that helps customers speed time to market, reduce costs, and navigate the complexity of today’s technology. Experts in the ZedBoard product line (UltraScale+ RFSoC Dev Kit, UltraZed-EV, Ultra96-V2, etc.) were on hand to answer questions, give advice, and consult. The element14 community and Hackster.io were part of the Avnet booth as well. But the star attraction of the Avnet booth was Turtlebot3 Burger.
The TurtleBot3 (Burger "stack" version) is a small, programmable, ROS-based, expandable mobile robot for use in education, research, hobby, and product prototyping. The goal of TurtleBot3 is to reduce the size of the platform and lower the price without having to sacrifice its functionality and quality. It has a 360-degree LIDAR for SLAM and navigation. And the one showcased in the Avnet booth was upgraded to the Ultra96-v2.
Automotive Systems Architectures from ADAS to AD
If I had to pick one area of technology that has the potential of revolutionizing the world, I’d pick transportation systems. Planes, trains and automobiles (remember the movie) are core to how we make society function. So, I was glad to have the chance to sit in on Paul Zoratti’s seminar on Automotive Systems Architectures from ADAS to AD. It was a great presentation on the architectures for advanced driver assistance systems to autonomous drive.
He began with a quick overview of SAE driving levels as laid out by the Society of Automotive Engineers. (i.e., Level 0 is no automation, while Level 5 is full automation where the car drives itself in all conditions.) At the present time, we are in Level 2. The presentation progressed to a description of automotive driving system requirements through each of the levels, moving through sensing, pre-processing, processing and actuation. Xilinx plays a role in the sensing domain (radar and lidar), data aggregation, pre-processing acceleration, and scalability and processing.
Wrapping up XDF, I toured around the partner booths. Advantech, ARM Development Tools, Digilent, a National Instruments Company, Infineon, and Mathworks all had booths at XDF. I had brief conversations with Digilent about their next RoadTest, and MathWorks about future content on the element14 community. I had nice conversation with an educator about his bright group of kids (Boston suburb). He was hoping get them involved in a programmable device competition. I toured the Alveo demo stations in the South Tower. But nothing compares with Avnet's Spin-The-Wheel-For-Some-Swag at the Avnet booth.