Friday, December 4, 2009

Core blimey!

If you've been upgrading your PCs regularly, chances are that the machine you're using now is either dual or quad core.

This means there are two or four processors built on the same piece of silicon and, due to their very close proximity and integration, it's possible for suitable software to divide up complex tasks so that parts of the code run concurrently on each core.

When the practical speed limits of switching and bandwidth are reached in any generation of computer technology, the only way to improve throughput is to simply "divide and conquer" by sharing the code between these multiple cores.

A suitable real-world analogy is that when you increase the flow of traffic on a roadway between two cities you can increase the speed at which they travel (but only up to a point) or simply add more lanes to the roadway. CPU gigahertz are the equivalent of the speed limit, cores are the equivalent of extra lanes.

So you'd think that after quad core there'd be eight core and then possibly even sixteen-core processors turning up next.

Well, as seems so often to be the case in the computer world, Intel hasn't bothered just doubling the core-count, they've gone straight to a 48-core processor they're calling the Single-chip Cloud Computer (SCC).

In order to create all these cores on a single chip, over 1.3 billion individual transistors are etched onto the surface of the silicon from which the CPU is formed.

Back in the 1960s, a single transistor cost around US$6. Even if a computer of this scale could have been created from individual transistors back then , the price tag would have been $8 billion. Although Intel hasn't announced a price for the SCC, which is due to be released late in 2010, the odds are that it will be well under US$1,000 even in small quantities.

However, Intel aren't resting on their laurels and claim that they'll soon be able to produce a chip with 100 cores. The current "core-count" record however, must go to the graphics chip manufacturer Nvidia who have announced their intention to build a 512-core chip.

The real question is -- what are users going to do with all this grunt and where will the software come from to take avantage of the enormous level of parallel computing power these new devices will represent.

Designing software for a dual or quad core processor is simple enough -- given that many applications can easily benefit from being spit into several concurrently executing tasks. Harnessing the power of 48 cores however, is a whole lot more complex.

The reality is that in a typical desktop situation, most of the 48 cores would simply be idling -- waiting around for something to do.

The real application for one of these uber-powerful processors will be in the areas of image/video processing, cryptography, virtual modeling and cryptography. Nvidia's 512-core chip for example, will clearly be designed to provide lightning fast graphics processing for its range of display cards.

However, when it comes to general-purpose processors such as the one in your desktop PC, it's only where large chunks of data can be broken up into smaller segments that can all be processed at the same time that the cores of the SCC will be kept running at full speed.

For this reason, your average Windows-based office PC will proably stick with just a handful of cores for the forseeable future. Both Intel and AMD have announced more modest 6-core processors for next year's desktop computers.

Never the less, Microsoft has stated that they're already planning to produce code that utilises the extra processing power that the SCC offers.

Until such time as newer designs (based onspintronics, optical or quantum technologies) make it out of the laboratory and onto the shelves, adding more cores is the easiest way to get more grunt from your boxes so don't be surprised if we see "core-count" being touted as a major selling feature, even if you don't need it.

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