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Intel looks to multicore future

Posted: 17 Oct 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ibm? pc? processor? intel?

Since IBM first introduced its PC in 1981, processor speeds have increased at a healthy pace. The Internet boom of the mid-90s pushed the need for faster processors even further, heating up the processor wars between the major players.

But with microprocessor architectures reaching their physical limits, the race has now shifted to parallel processing and multicore architectures. By using two or more cores on a single die, industry players hope to break the limits of single-processor systems. Dual-core processors for servers are now becoming mainstream. In the near future, we will be seeing dual cores in mobile and desktop systems, and having four or more cores on one chip may not be too far off.

The processor race is taking a sharp turn from gigahertz to overall performance and the dominant players are slugging it out for who's got the most efficient products. Through a new metric of delivering processor performance, Intel hopes to raise the bar by developing systems with the highest performance at the lowest power consumption. Intel's goal is to boost the performance of its future processors by 10x while simultaneously lowering power consumption by the same factora necessity in addressing heat-dissipation issues and the ever decreasing size of some consumer electronics.

"We're changing our engineering focus from clock speed to multicore processors. Multicore enables us to deliver continued performance without the power penalties that we saw in the gigahertz approach," said Intel CEO Paul Otellini at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco last August.

To bring this vision closer, Intel will introduce three products based on a new micro-architecture in the second half of 2006. The Woodcrest, Conroe and Merom multicore processors will be targeted for the server, desktop and mobile platforms, respectively. Each will sport key features of Intel's NetBurst architecture and the Banias processor used in the successful Centrino platform.

These processors will be at the center of Intel's digital home, office, mobile and enterprise platforms for multitasking, multi-user and user-centric applications. As a run up, Intel will be introducing its first mobile optimized dual-core processor, codenamed Yonah, Q1 2006, which will be at the center of Intel's Napa platform. Intel expects to ship more dual/multicore processors starting 2006 and expects to exit 2007 shipping multicore processors at a rate of close to 100 percent for servers.

With Internet traffic growing at a rapid rate, more computing power will be required to handle traffic as more and more people go online. Even Google's computational needs are increasing as it processes more and more queries. To address this issue, Google looked at parallel processing using multicore CPUs. Although a similar result can be achieved by running multiple CPUs, the power requirements will be enormous. Eventually, more money will be spent for electricity than for hardware.

"Multicore CPUs have very big promise in, for the first time, really changing the performance-per-watt picture because you can add cores with much less power per extra core than what you add for CPUs. It's a lot cheaper too," said Google fellow, Urs Hvlzle.

Are we there yet?

Dual-core processors may be in, but when do we start seeing four or more cores on one chip? The technology may be there, but will the programming support be available? "There are challenges ahead, not the least of which is writing software to take advantage of multicores," said Intel senior fellow and director Justin Rattner during an interview. "The programming challenge will require enormous attention."

Although building better or faster processors is an important part of Intel's strategy, the company is now looking at developing "the ultimate in sophistication to deliver the maximum in simplicity," said Rattner. "We really feel the time has come to focus the system on maximizing user experience and not just packing as much performance as we possibly can."

Although we will still be seeing single-core processors in desktop, server and mobile platforms from Intel, it won't be long before they will be phased out. "About 70 percent of the servers in the next year or two will be running on dual- or multicore processors," according to Otellini. Early next year, Intel will have dual-core processors across its product line. But when will single-core processors for the three platforms die out? "Probably not more than three, maybe four years at the most," said Rattner.

- Dave Ledesma

Electronic Engineering Times-Asia

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