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Making one computer work as hard as four

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MULTI-TASKING: Inside Intel's Core 2 Extreme Quad processor.
MULTI-TASKING: Inside Intel's Core 2 Extreme Quad processor.

We are on the threshold of a new teraflop era

WAS IT just five years ago that we were joking about computer chips with a `split personality' — the novel technology of hyper threading, `conning' the software into thinking of one physical processor as two? And is it less than two years since we quipped about the trend of `buy one, get one free' hitting the semiconductor industry? Throughout 2006, announcements of new dual core processors have come thick and fast from leading chip makers like Intel and AMD, even while transitioning the computing environment into handling data in chunks of 64 rather than 32 bits.

Unveiled

In November 2006, Intel unveiled the first four-brains-in-one-chip processors, the Xeon 5300 for servers and workstations and the Core 2 Extreme quad core processor family for high-end PCs angled at the digital media and gaming segments. Since then the Intel quad family has swelled to 11 processors, the latest low voltage Xeons unveiled in mid-March, require just 12.5 watts of power for each core — or less than 50 cores per chip compared to 80 and 120 watts of earlier versions.The way the industry is moving, it is clear that it has dragged us all, willy nilly, into the era of multi-core computing, offering to both lay users as well as corporate number crunchers the twin benefits of: Multi-threading: allowing applications to be written in a way that that can exploit the availability of parallel processing streams in the same chip... Like dividing computation-intensive tasks like image `rendering' or 2-D, 3-D graphic realisation, into smaller chunks to be addressed simultaneously, by different cores within the processor. Multi-tasking: allowing multiple jobs to be executed at the same time, some in the `foreground', some, imperceptibly in the `background'... For example doing a regular virus scan or system software updates, while one is opening mail folders and examining news feeds. On the home front, multitasking will allow the lay user to exploit the emerging convergence of PC and TV applications: you can view a movie to its full (high) definition while other applications are churning away unseen, monitoring the security of your house, looking in on your sleeping baby, and downloading your mail. It would seem that multi core processors have arrived to a fortuitous timing — ready to exploit the enhanced multi-tasking capabilities of the new Vista versions of Microsoft's Windows operating system. In addition to the more obvious computing efficiencies, which only a more rigorous testing environment can quantify, four cores under the hood, virtually wipes away the `wait' time while standard home PC applications kick in. For corporate computing, multiple cores on a chip are also likely to come as a booster shot for the new trend in `virtual machines': a single server or workstation fuelled by a quad core chip, for example, can behave like four logically separate computers — and they could even be fuelled by different operating systems: a Linux platform, a Solaris platform, a Windows machine.

Not a new concept

This is not a new concept, but it will come as welcome news to small and medium sized enterprises who can now consolidate their server requirements and move away from an earlier era of `masala' platforms, one for each legacy operating environment. Quad chips are just the beginning: companies like Intel have a clear road map to keep doubling the number of processor cores on a chip in a systematic fashion. This has already opened up the possibility of compact `teraflop' computers severely shrunken when compared to the room-sized leviathans of less than a decade ago.Last month AMD demonstrated a single system that broke the teraflop (one trillion floating point operations per second) barrier... a ten-fold improvement over today's high performance computers that typically deliver 100 billion calculations a second. AMD's `Teraflop in a Box' ran Windows XP Professional harnessing the power of its Opteron dual core chips.While that was teraflop computing today, Intel has unveiled an interesting vision of teraflop performance tomorrow from a single chip — a research exercise that might take a decade to translate into a product, but which nevertheless demonstrates the ability to put 80 calculating cores in a single chip.

Creating huge demand

All this multi cored activity is already creating a huge demand for applications rewritten to exploit multi threading. "There is an amazing opportunity in this transition, for Indian developers," says Narendra Bhandari, Intel's Director, Developer Relations, for the Asia Pacific region. And to kick start this development, Mr Bhandari was in Pune last week to help launch and support the first ever, Multi Core University Programme at the International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT). Earlier, the company tied up with NIIT to help set up ten multi-core training labs in Delhi , Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Pune. Today's students already have the benefits of a learning environment, which will hopefully fuel tomorrow's `killer' applications in a multi-core, multi dimensional computing arena.ANAND PARTHASARATHY


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