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AMD pushes software shift for multicore CPUs

Posted: 14 Feb 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:AMD CPUs? multicore chips? software shift?

Parallel programming is becoming a necessity as the number and types of cores on a CPU rise. Developers need to rewrite today's computer software to pave the way for tomorrow's multicore processors that will use a variety of different cores, according to Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

The work involves a fundamental rethinking of the current software stack, said an executive trying to rally support for the concept.

AMD has started talks with partners including Microsoft Corp. on its ideas. The company believes the work will ease the job of programming heterogeneous computer microprocessors such as its Fusion chips that will mix x86, graphics and other cores starting in 2009.

Promoting openness
"We don't have a specific proposal, but we are out talking to partners about the concept and it is getting a lot of attention," said Chuck Moore, an AMD senior fellow who started working on the software initiative full time in mid-December.

"Over the next few months or quarters, I think we will sharpen our views and put out a proposaland perhaps a consortium behind it," said Moore, chief architect of AMD's accelerated computing initiative. "It's not just an AMD thing. It's an open system, and lets other players innovate at different layers," he added.

AMD believes computer software needs to be redefined in an open way much as the Open Systems Interconnection stack redefined networking software in the late 1970's. By putting in place new levels of abstraction, the industry could let applications developers write parallel programs without needing to know the details of every multicore processor.

In AMD's view, the new computer stack could include an expanded set of runtime environments above the operating system. They could help find, schedule, synchronize and manage chip-level resources for applications programmers. Below the OS, virtualization software could be extended to better track and correct programming errors.

The moves are designed to tackle the growing need for a parallel programming model as the number and types of cores on a CPU rise.

Multicore programming
"The industry is in a little bit of a panic about how to program multicore processors, especially heterogeneous ones," said Moore. To make effective use of multicore hardware today you need a PhD in computer science. That can't continue if we want to enable heterogeneous CPUs," he said.

Both AMD and Intel Corp. said they will ship processors that put x86 and graphics cores on the same die, probably starting in 2009. An AMD spokesman said the company will announce a number of different accelerator cores in the future.

Further in the future, PC processors are likely to use a wider variety of memory types as well. They may also use stacking technologies to create more complex SoC designs, Moore added.

Rallying Redmond
Microsoft is one of the partners with whom AMD has been discussing the concept. AMD stationed one of its senior fellows, Rich Witek, at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington in 2007 to set up an advanced technology lab to pursue the initiative and other future concepts. Witek led development teams for many microprocessors including the StrongARM and Alpha chips at Digital Equipment Corp.

"We cooperated with Microsoft successfully on the AMD 64bit technology and they are ready to go at it again," Moore said.

Involving Intel
So far AMD has not engaged its archrival, Intel, which makes the majority of PC processors. Moore praised Intel for its efforts in multicore design with startups and universities as "good computer science work."

"We are trying to take it one step further and help define heterogeneous platforms," Moore said. "We welcome any and all sides to participate in an open and mutually beneficial environment that creates more opportunities, but I don't go around and pitch this stuff to them specifically yet," he added.

"X86 compatibility is of paramount importance for the foreseeable future," Moore said. "That's where most of the programs and the OS will run, but at some point some jobs will run faster and in a more power-efficient manner on targeted accelerators," he said.

"We are going to go make this happen, and if it feels right to most players, that fact will get back to Intel," he said. "If Intel tried to close this up in some way to favor their products, I trust the ecosystem would cry foul," he added.

Moore supervised the design of AMD's next-generation, high-performance x86 core, code-named Bulldozer, until mid-December when he transitioned into full time work rallying support for new software. "The core design is going along well, well enough to let me roll off to take on this broader initiative," said Moore.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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