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Department of Computer Science

Exploring Unikernel Operating Systems Running on reconfigurable Softcore Processors

Primary supervisor

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  • Directly Funded Project (Students Worldwide)

This research project has funding attached. Applications for this project are welcome from suitably qualified candidates worldwide. Funding may only be available to a limited set of nationalities and you should read the full department and project details for further information.

Project description

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 executes. 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.

Person specification

For information


Applicants will be required to evidence the following skills and qualifications.

  • You must be capable of performing at a very high level.
  • You must have a self-driven interest in uncovering and solving unknown problems and be able to work hard and creatively without constant supervision.


Applicants will be required to evidence the following skills and qualifications.

  • You will have good time management.
  • You will possess determination (which is often more important than qualifications) although you'll need a good amount of both.


Applicants will be required to address the following.

  • Comment on your transcript/predicted degree marks, outlining both strong and weak points.
  • Discuss your final year Undergraduate project work - and if appropriate your MSc project work.
  • How well does your previous study prepare you for undertaking Postgraduate Research?
  • Why do you believe you are suitable for doing Postgraduate Research?