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Multicore chips pose next big challenge for industry

Agam Shah | March 23, 2009
Efforts are under way to help programmers write code that can take full advantage of processors with more than four cores

SAN FRANCISCO, 20 MARCH 2009 - Adding more processing cores has emerged as the primary way of boosting performance of server and PC chips, but the benefits will be greatly diminished if the industry can't overcome certain hardware and programming challenges, participants at the Multicore Expo in Santa Clara, California, said this week.

Most software today is still written for single-core chips and will need to be rewritten or updated to take advantage of the increasing number of cores that Intel, Sun Microsystems and other chip makers are adding to their products, said Linley Gwennap, president and principal analyst at The Linley Group.

Off-the-shelf applications will often run faster on CPUs with up to four processor cores, but beyond that performance levels off and may even deteriorate as more cores are added, he said. A recent report from Gartner also highlighted the problem.

Chip makers and system builders have begun efforts to educate developers and provide them with better tools for multicore programming. A year ago, Intel and Microsoft said they would invest US$20 million to open two research centers at U.S. universities devoted to tackling the problem. The lack of multicore programming tools for mainstream developers is perhaps the biggest challenge the industry faces today, Gwennap said.

Writing applications in a way that lets different parts of a computing task, such as solving a math problem or rendering an image, be divided up and executed simultaneously across multiple cores is not new. But this model, often called parallel computing, has been limited so far mainly to specialized, high-performance computing environments.

But in recent years, Intel and Advanced Micro Devices have been adding cores as a more power-efficient way to boost chip performance, a marked change from their traditional practice of increasing clock speed. Intel is building eight cores into its upcoming Nehalem-EX chips, and AMD is designing 12-core chips for servers. They are also adding multi-threading capabilities, which allow each of the cores to work on multiple lines of code at the same time.

That means mainstream applications have to be written in a different way to take advantage of the additional cores available. The work is hard to do and creates the potential for new types for software bugs. One of the most common is "race conditions," where the output of a calculation depends on the various elements of a task being completed in a certain order. If they are not, errors can result.

A few parallel programming tools are available, such as Intel's Parallel Studio for C and C++. Other vendors in the space are Codeplay, Polycore Software and Clik Arts. There is also a new C-based parallel programming model called OpenCL, being developed by The Khronos Group and backed by Apple, Intel, AMD, Nvidia and others.


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