Xilinx and Altera are both showing FPGA coprocessor modules that plug directly into Xeon motherboard sockets at the Intel Developer Forum today (for use on dual and quad socket servers). Versions for PCI Express are being developed as well.
Field Programmable Gate Arrays are used to emulate dedicated hardware. While not as fast as a dedicated chip they can be incredibly fast compared to a general purpose CPU. The FPGA can be reprogrammed on the fly for doing tasks like video and audio compression, decompression, encryption, decryption, and other tasks that are generally CPU intensive. David Hulton, from Pico Computing, demonstrated using an FPGA to check password hashes for WPA at ShmooCon. On a standard PC you can check 300,000 hashes per second; using one FPGA you can check 12 million per second — the entire 40-bit key space in 24 hours. It works just as well for attacking things like FileVault.
Manufacturers are already selling dedicated processors for doing tasks that could be replaced by these FPGA coprocessors; take this USB iPod/PSP video converter for example. When I bought my last TV tuner card, I selected it because it had onboard MPEG2 compression/decompression. With a coprocessor I wouldn’t have to make that decision. Render times in programs like iMovie would also be greatly increased. Let’s hope these coprocessors go main stream and don’t stay mired in the server and high performance computing industries.
Main stream adoption will take time of course, but we use dedicated cards for our 3D graphics now. Something very few were doing 10 years ago. Semi-dedicated chips like this may actually speed up adoption of other dedicated devices like the physics boards that have been floating around the past few years. You’d get decent performance from a physics engine in an FPGA, but if you wanted more performance you could get the dedicated board. If computers started coming from the factory with these FPGAs you wouldn’t have any cost of entry to try out something like dedicated physics processing.
A related announcement: Intel confirms programmable, multi-core chip.