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Exploring Unikernel Operating Systems Running on Reconfigurable Softcore Processors

   Department of Computer Science

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  Dr Pierre Olivier  Applications accepted all year round  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Unikernels are standalone, single-purpose appliances assembled from user-space source code at compile time. Amongst other benefits, the operating system layer of a unikernel can be tailored towards the specific application it runs. This capacity of specialisation can lead to significant performance improvements, as well as memory footprint/attack surface reduction. Because of these characteristics, unikernels are increasingly gaining traction in a wide range of domains such as high-performance computing, cloud services, or serverless computing.

A softcore processor is a CPU that can be entirely synthesised on a reconfigurable architecture, such as a Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA). Although softcores cannot achieve the same level of computing performance as traditional hard-core CPUs, they still provide many benefits: due to their flexibility they are used situations where the applications’ requirements evolve over time and the hardware features need to be expanded in the field. Softcores also provide advantages in terms of security, low-latency communications with accelerators on the FPGA, real-time guarantees, and cost reduction. Many open-source softcore processors models are available, including some implementing the emerging RISC-V instruction set architecture.

The project's goal is to explore the implications of running unikernels on top of RISC-V softcore processors. The key idea is that the capacity for (software) specialisation of unikernels can be complemented by the (hardware) softcore's ability to be itself customised towards a specific application use-case. This gives the unique opportunity to explore co-specialising the operating system as well as the CPU towards a given application. The successful applicant will join a collaborative project in a consortium of UK- and US-based universities.

Equality, diversity and inclusion is fundamental to the success of The University of Manchester, and is at the heart of all of our activities. We know that diversity strengthens our research community, leading to enhanced research creativity, productivity and quality, and societal and economic impact. We actively encourage applicants from diverse career paths and backgrounds and from all sections of the community, regardless of age, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation and transgender status.

We also support applications from those returning from a career break or other roles. We consider offering flexible study arrangements (including part-time: 50%, 60% or 80%, depending on the project/funder). 

Funding Notes

The Department of Computer Science is pleased to offer a 3 year studentship in support of this project to cover all tuition fees and provide a tax-free stipend to cover living costs. It is anticipated that this studentship will begin in January 2023.

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