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UNBOUND, WINTER 2015

ENGINEERING SCHOOL PARTNERS WITH MICRON ON GROUNDBREAKING PROCESSOR

A Worldwide Center For Advanced Processing Research

Professors Mircea Stan, Kevin Skadron and Stuart Wolf are heading the
Center for Automata Processing, the only center of its kind in the world.

Micron Technology finds itself in an unusual position for a company known for innovations in computer memory and storage. It has entered new territory by developing a processing chip capable of opening the door to advances in fields like bioinformatics, video/image analytics and network security. It turned last year to computer scientists at the University of Virginia with expertise in novel processor architectures and relevant applications to build a worldwide community devoted to realizing the Automata Processor’s potential. The Center for Automata Processing, cofounded by Micron and the University, is a virtual collaboration of universities, companies and government agencies.

“Our goal is to foster collaborations among industry and academic researchers to advance the field of automata computing,” says Professor Kevin Skadron, chair of the Department of Computer Science and the center’s director. “We hope to facilitate teaming on proposals and provide industry with a source of academic expertise in solving big-data problems.” He points out that the center will also generate research opportunities for University graduate and undergraduate students and could enrich existing courses in areas such as processor design and data mining.

The Automata Processor addresses a critical drawback of conventional processors, one that impedes the progress of research in scores of fields. Computers are very good at producing exact matches, combing through millions of records in milliseconds, for example, to find the precise match to DNA lifted from a crime scene. But when it comes to imprecise matches — identifying commonalities in strings of genetic code from two different persons — they slow to a crawl, undone by the limited bandwidth between processor and memory.

Micron used insights gleaned from its many years as one of the world’s leading providers of computer memory to overcome this problem. Conventional processor designs require that instructions and data be fetched from and stored in memory, while the Automata Processor does not, thus avoiding memory-access bottlenecks.

“The Automata Processor preconfigures each of its 1.5 million pattern-matching elements in advance, so that a huge number of parallel matching operations can occur simultaneously and instantaneously for each input item,” Skadron says. “This sets the stage for high-speed, comprehensive search and analysis of complex, unstructured data streams.” Thanks to this architecture, the Automata Processor can not only help researchers find matches among seemingly dissimilar items, but it could also help them deduce the factors that produce those patterns.

Skadron credits Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Mircea Stan and Materials Science and Engineering Professor Stuart Wolf — who are associate directors — for being instrumental in securing the center for the University. Thanks to their expertise in memory technologies, both faculty members have longstanding research collaborations with Micron. This positioned them to introduce Micron to Engineering School expertise in processors and in applications, such as image analytics, where the Automata Processor would be highly effective.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity,” says Terry Leslie, Micron’s director of business development for Automata processing. “The University of Virginia’s partnership is a critically important part of building an ecosystem for this exciting new architecture.”

The center has already attracted interest across the University. In addition to faculty from computer science as well as electrical and computer engineering, there are a number of interdisciplinary collaborations underway with faculty from the departments of biomedical engineering, biochemistry and molecular genetics, systems and information engineering, and public health sciences. “The University’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities is also participating in the center,” Skadron says. “These diverse collaborations are an indication of just how powerful and broadly applicable the Automata Processor is.”

For more information on the center, visit cap.virginia.edu.