Spotlight: The Elite Hardware Providers Pushing ZK Innovation Forward

Nick Fouriezos
Mar 6, 2024

Zero-knowledge technologies are rapidly advancing, shifting what once was an academic curiosity into one of the most innovative spaces in Web3 today. Excitement in the industry is palpable: consider the fact that Aztec Protocol and Aleo — both ZK pioneers, and ZPrize sponsors — were among the top-5 fastest growing web3 ecosystems for overall developers from 2022 to 2023.

ZPrize is a key part of the industry-wide effort to accelerate ZK technology so it can live up to that exciting promise, using competitions to discover innovations that bring us all one step closer to making widespread application of this critical technology possible. 

One essential part of that commitment? Making sure that the developer teams competing in ZPrize have access to the best possible hardware in the space. After all, without top compute capabilities at their disposal, competitors can’t hope to push the boundaries of what is possible in this next frontier of ZK tech.

That’s why ZPrize worked with its hardware providers to ensure that 2024 competitors would have access to truly cutting-edge computational hardware — in particular, securing access to NVIDIA Ada Lovelace GPUs just months after they were announced in September, at a time where almost no providers could get their hands on them.

In this piece, we highlight the critical work of our core hardware providers — PiKNiK and VM Accel —as they support ZPrize developers in building the future of a ZK-powered web.

Meet PiKNiK, one of the top cloud computing providers in Web3

PiKNiK began as a North America-based decentralized storage provider that was one of the first to onboard 1 petabyte — or roughly 1 million gigabytes — of storage capacity onto the Filecoin network, with major datasets  including those from the USC Shoah Foundation, NASA, and the National Institutes of Health.

Despite those heady accomplishments, PiKNiK maintains its ethos as a largely-bootstrapped cloud computing company providing tailored solutions at unbeatable rates for its partners. That personal touch has been critical in its work with ZPrize — particularly when organizers approached PiKNiK in late 2023 with a seemingly impossible mission: Could PiKNiK get access to the Ada Lovelace GPUs necessary to power the next wave of ZK innovation?

PiKNiK already offered a number of NVIDIA processing units with other powerful and very-high memory-optimized cloud computing configurations, ideal for ZK research and development. However, the Ada Lovelace GPU had only just been announced at the time, with very few providers having seen it in action, much less actually getting their hands on it. Securing it would be difficult, and costly: a traditional cloud platform likely wouldn’t have even considered such a request, says Kevin Huynh, Co-Founder and CEO of PiKNiK.

Still, there was no doubt that getting them would be essential if ZPrize developers wanted to continue pushing ZK technology forward on the latest computing processors. Equipped with advanced Tensor and Ray-Tracing cores, the Ada Lovelace GPUs boast significantly improved clock speeds and cache systems over the previously released Ampere GPUs.

“For every dollar you spend on this generation, the relative amount in processing power is significantly increased,” Huynh says. “That allows a ZK researcher to employ more robust provers — or use the same circuits faster — without sacrificing performance.” 

Much of the challenge with current ZK technologies is that they take too long to be practical in everyday use (for a simplified example, a person trying to checkout at a grocery store might wait no longer than a few seconds for their purchase to process, Huynh says, a timescale that today’s ZK computations have not yet reached).

Using the Ada Lovelace GPUs and cloud configurations that PiKNiK was able to provide, developers should be able to significantly improve on past proof processing times, experimenting with different models that could bring ZK even closer to real-world usage and the speed of business.

“In theory, these generational improvements in the hardware could lead to double-digit increases in performance,” Huynh says.

While that would still be too slow for consumer use, it would represent a marked improvement over current ZK solutions — exactly the type of technological breakthrough that ZPrize was made to empower on the path to mass adoption.

Introducing VM Accel, providing “FPGA as a Service”

While PiKNiK provides CPU and GPU hardware options, VM Accel has been the provider of FPGA hardware for that portion of ZPrize 2023.

Currently, using FPGAs — also known as “field programmable gate arrays” — doesn’t necessarily increase ZK processing performance, a finding that was confirmed in the inaugural ZPrize competition in 2022. 

That’s in part because ZK knowledge hasn’t advanced enough to take advantage of the types of extreme efficiencies that FPGAs can, theoretically, one day create. Still, FPGAs may one day be key to unlocking the full processing potential of ZK tech, which is why ZPrize continues to reward researchers for innovating with them. 

The VMAccel cloud uses Xilinx FPGA cards, which have been proven to accelerate compute-intensive workloads and provide breakthrough performance for HPC, AI/ML, biotech, 5G, Web3/Metaverse, Cloud Gaming, Video Streaming/Transcoding, Smart Cities, and other such applications. 

By offloading compute-intensive tasks to dedicated hardware, Xilinx accelerator cards in the VMAccel cloud can enable faster processing, reduced latency, and improved streaming quality.

What innovations will ZPrize enable next?

ZPrize has already led to key developments, spurring competition that has led to six-fold increases in proof submission speeds and 10X improvements in proof verification, among other achievements.

Submissions for ZPrize 2023 are still being accepted until March 2024, including a “High Throughput Signature Verification” competition and “Beat the Best” challenges for  MSM, WASM, and E2E Acceleration categories.

These are still the early days for ZK technology, which means there is significant opportunity for developers that want to build privacy-enabled applications that will form the backbone of a better web.

If you want to learn more, we encourage you to join the Discord and explore our ZPrize GitHub, which includes the open-source solutions published from past competitions.

Then, check out ZPrize 2023 to see how you can win rewards — or sponsor a future prize — to help push the entire ZK ecosystem forward.

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