Technology developer and manufacturer Demcon acquired a share in QBayLogic B.V. last month. This spin-off from the University of Twente has developed a language for the ‘design’ of hardware (computer chips) to obtain the maximum hardware speed and energy efficiency performance. QBayLogic was taken on by Demcon’s incubator programme in 2016, enabling it to support clients in the development of hardware. A successful project for Demcon confirmed the potential of the new hardware description language. This involvement will enable QBayLogic to grow further and develop new products, such as tools to accelerate working with the language.
These days, software is the driving force behind the development of advanced systems. This includes rapid image processing of complex algorithms for all forms of artificial intelligence. The problem is that the standard hardware (processor chip) is not fast enough for such applications. That is why so-called FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) are emerging rapidly. For optimal performance of these chips, the hardware is simultaneously ‘co-developed’: this entails the development of a computer processor that is specifically suited to the relevant application.
Functional programming languages
Traditional programming languages for software, such as C, C++ and Java are not suitable for ‘programming’ hardware. There are special languages for hardware description, such as VHDL and (System) Verilog, but these only work at a low abstract level and, partly because of this, are user-unfriendly. QBayLogic has developed a language, known as Clash (CλaSH as logo), for the functional programming of FPGAs at a higher abstract level. As functional hardware description language, Clash is extremely suitable for describing the structure or architecture of an application in terms of the desired functionality. As a compiler, Clash then translates the functional design automatically into the actual hardware programming in VHDL or (System) Verilog.
Cheaper, faster and more energy-efficient
QBayLogic was founded in 2016 by Jan Kuper and Christiaan Baaij as a spin-off from the University of Twente (UT). Kuper had been informatics lecturer at UT for thirty years and Baaij’s PhD was about the development of Clash, which Kuper had already started in 2007. ‘The entire world programs in C, C++, Java and Matlab, but if you want to grasp the real essence of computer hardware, you need to switch to a functional hardware description language. That’s why we developed Clash. Many processes, such as calculation operations, take place in parallel in hardware, while the classical languages work sequentially, with step-by-step programming. This means they can only obtain half of the maximum performance from an FPGA. With our language you have control over how the hardware works and you can get the maximum out of it. This makes the architecture for an application defined by our language cheaper, faster and more energy-efficient. Moreover, it’s faster and easier to test a program than when using VHDL, for instance.’
When searching for a place where the start-up could grow organically without external investments, QBayLogic ended up at Demcon. The Demcon incubator programme mainly offers starting companies accommodation and support with personnel and legal aspects (as well as support with engineering and production). In the initial discussion with Director Dennis Schipper there was an immediate click, explained Kuper. ‘After 45 minutes we were outside again and were assured of accommodation. That meant we could get started and leave the discussion as to how to formally arrange the partnership until later. With the stake that Demcon took in QBayLogic last month, this discussion has now been concluded.’ Schipper: ‘QBayLogic’s ambition appealed to me and I immediately saw the added value of their approach for the complex systems we develop and build, with software – and therefore also programmable hardware – as an increasingly important factor. We aim to operate as incubator for starting companies and that’s worked out really well for QBayLogic so far.’ The legal support from Demcon, for instance, played an immediate and vital role in QBayLogic’s negotiations with a large, international client.
Another interesting point was that Demcon could also be a QBayLogic client. An initial joint project went well, stated Joost Kauffman, Senior Mechatronic Systems Engineer at Demcon Optomechatronic Systems. ‘The power of QBayLogic lies in their toolbox, which is open source and therefore doesn’t involve high licence costs, and in the fact that they have extremely experienced people who can support us. I expect we’ll have to call on them more often for applications in precision instruments and production machines, including such things as wafer tracking throughout a production process. This needs to take place at high frequency to keep the wafers stable. Then you automatically end up with FPGAs.’
The first partnership involved Demcon and TNO’s development of a wavefront sensor for satellite communications, contracted by the European Space Agency (ESA). This sensor needs to control a deformable mirror to compensate for atmospheric disturbances. Because of the high data speeds, the algorithm for processing all sensor data was programmed using Clash in an FPGA. Demcon called on QBayLogic for this. The FPGAs are now working well in the satellite communication system, stated Kauffman.
‘With their approach, QBayLogic has shown that they can program an application in the hardware faster than when using the traditional approach from mainstream programming languages and that you have more control over the result. You don’t need to worry about errors in the implementation, as the compiler removes these. Moreover, for the required 5 kHz data frequency, the performance could not be achieved with a normal PC. An FPGA does, however, achieve that speed. In addition, the code generated by Clash is extremely efficient, which means you can sometimes use a cheaper FPGA than for code produced in the traditional way. With an FPGA you can, for instance, also time to the nanosecond when data move from A to B or when a certain process is completed. This is important for time-critical processes.’
Powerful and flexible development environment
QBayLogic is currently working on a few long-term projects for international clients and is receiving more and more requests for project support. And it won’t end there as QBayLogic is also working on the development of tools to support the design process, for instance to enable efficiency testing at an early stage when the hardware is being developed. That is hardly possible with the methods currently used in practice. Its formal character means that Clash lends itself well to mathematical analysis methods, such as dataflow models. ‘This will be an important improvement to standard design methods as, with these, to end up with a design that is efficient enough, you’re largely dependent on trial & error,’ explained Baaij. Kuper added: ‘One of our international clients, an extremely large company, is interested in developing such tools. This matches our ambition to expand Clash to become a powerful and flexible development environment for computer hardware and Demcon’s involvement certainly contributes to this.’
Demcon (700 employees) develops, produces and supplies technology and innovative products and systems that offer solutions for the technical and societal challenges of clients and end users across the world. The focus areas are high-tech systems, medical systems, industrial systems, optomechatronic systems and robotic systems. Demcon has branches in Best, Delft, Enschede, Groningen, Oldenzaal, Münster (Germany) and Singapore.
For more information, please contact Renée Koekkoek op Munsterhuis, Public Relations & Press Officer at Demcon, Tel: +31 (0)88 11 52 000.
Also see www.qbaylogic.com.