RealTime IT News

Intel Sees Multiple Multi-Core Future

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – With dual-core processors going mainstream, chip makers are busy working on the next generation of multi-core processors that add even more processing engines to the CPU.

Intel has gone on record as predicting there will be systems with dozens and even hundreds of cores in the next decade. The chip giant gave more details of where it sees the technology trending during its annual Research Day here at its headquarters on Wednesday.

Intel made clear its multi-core vision won't just leverage its popular line of general purpose processors. "Some of the cores could be for DSP functions or crypto engines, they don't have to be heterogeneous," said Jerry Bautista, director of technology management at Intel's Microprocessor Technology Labs. "There is a hybrid notion."

But several design challenges remain before systems with a double- or triple-digit number of cores are ready for primetime. For one, "There are a lot of issues around power management," said Bautista.

The other challenge is software. While the latest operating systems can take advantage of multi-core hardware to speed up some operations, application development is behind in taking full advantage of the architecture.

"Overall, software is the biggest challenge," said Raj Yavatkar, director of Intel's Systems Technology Lab.

Intel is investing millions in grants to universities to help train faculty members and provide tools related to software development for the coming multi-core systems.

"We've only recently seen an emphasis on multithreading programming for symmetric systems," said Dean McCarron, who heads Mercury Research in Cave Creek, AZ. "This would be for would be asymmetric for processors with different cores and capabilities. You have to be able to design for questions such as 'Can I partition this program?' and 'Do I have parts that are specific to the task?'"

McCarron said Intel's direction of mixed multi core is a logical evolution but a shift from its earlier belief that the general purpose CPU could do everything.

"The market has evolved," McCarron told internetnews.com. "You look at the PC today, a general purpose microprocessor runs the whole show, but the graphics chip in there is already oriented to run in parallel for 3D graphics and rendering. Intel is looking to increase the processor's value."

McCarron speculates that a multi-core chip tuned for video could greatly reduce the power consumption required in a notebook PC. And he said adding such specialized functions with dedicated multi-core chips won't necessarily add a lot of cost.

"You could do an array of cores with far fewer transistors and greatly increase the capabilities of a general purpose CPU without increasing cost," said McCarron.

AMD beat Intel to the punch in volume shipping 64-bit x86 server and dual-core processors as well as more energy efficient chips. But Intel has responded with more competitive products such as its "Conroe" desktop processor and server chips due out this summer.

Intel's chief technology officer, Justin Rattner, made a point in remarks at the start of the event of positioning his company at the cutting edge of microprocessor development.

"We've been working the ideal balance of energy, performance and capability," said Rattner. "There's been some sense that this is a reactive effort, but it's taken four years to develop a new generation of advanced technology and have all the ideas in place for the team to go to work. It's not something we hashed out in the last 18 months to two years. A number of us have been waiting till we could get the stuff out the door."

That research has resulted in more competitive offerings from Intel, including its Centrino Duo chips for mobile, Viiv for consumer multimedia desktops, and the forthcoming vPro brand of chips with built-in management, virtualization and security features.

"We're certainly not resting on our laurels," said Rattner. He added that Intel's current research has the goal of producing systems with 10x lower power and 10x higher performance than the current generation.