RealTime IT News

Multi-Core Enters The Mainstream

Best of 2006 Internetnews.com wades through the top stories and issues that rocked the industry in 2006 in this week-long series.

The race to see who had the fastest x86 chips ended with a whimper -- not a bang -- in 2006. For years, AMD  and Intel  have been in an arms race for bragging rights to who had the fastest chips. But now neither seems to care much.

Several years ago, Intel developed prototypes of a Pentium running at an astounding 10GHz speeds, but the chip giant soon realized it couldn't effectively manage the heat and power requirements.

Enter the multi-core processor, which shares computing tasks among more than one core or computer brain. A dual-core processor adds a second core for processing without increasing the overall thermal requirements making it far more energy efficient. The more cores, the more shared processing -- assuming the software you're running is designed to address multiple cores. More on that in a minute.

AMD was the first to back out of the speed race when it shifted its design efforts from a traditional x86 processor, which worked much like Intel's, to Opteron, its first dual-core model for servers.

"Multi-core is the new megahertz," said analyst Nathan Brookwood with Insight64. "The last era was marked by increasing performance by raising the frequency, but the current era is about adding more cores." (For the record, multi-core processors didn't start with AMD and Intel; several vendors, notably IBM with its Power processors, have produced them, albeit not x86, years before AMD and Intel got in the game.)

But Brookwood also notes more cores aren't automatically a good thing. "Just as we got to the point where there were some wretched excesses when it came to the last era of increasing the frequency beyond any real value but to say you had the fastest chip, we're probably going to see the same boasts when it comes to the number of cores.

Falling for Niagara

Sun not only joined the multi-core parade, it led it. The company's multi-threaded, "Niagara" T1000 processor has eight-cores.

Brookwood has praise for Sun's efforts in coming up with unique technology for specific markets rather than competing with AMD and Intel head on. "Everyone, including Sun agrees that Niagara is good for some stuff and not so good for others."

Software that can address multiple threads like Sun's own Solaris operating system, for example, and certain Web applications, can readily sop up the processing that extra cores afford.

"You get maximum throughput on the same amount of real estate," explained Fadi Azhari, director of outbound marketing at Sun. "It's like having multiple lanes in the supermarket instead of everyone having to wait it in one line for one register."

Niagara has more cores than Intel or AMD chips, but they aren't nearly as powerful. Sun has already announced it's working on Niagara 2, due in 2007, which will be able to address 64 threads or instruction sequences. The current Niagara addresses up to 32 threads. And in 2008, Sun plans to release its high-end "Rock" processor with 16 computer cores.

But in a survey of programmers released earlier this year, Intel found that almost 80 percent of developers were working on at least one multi-threaded application, but they didn't have the tools or the experience, which made the going rough.

"Software tools haven't made that [multithreading] leap yet, which makes taking advantage of threads much more difficult," said James Reinders, marketing director for Intel's Developer Products division. "We want to make it easier to program and not force the programmer to do explicit thread management."

Intel has invested heavily in tools for developers working on multi-threaded applications.

The great core war

As the software continues to evolve, there was no let up in the rivalry between AMD and Intel. Though AMD and Intel introduced dual-core chips in 2005, the products really kicked into high gear in 2006.

AMD's Opteron server chip established itself as a strong competitor capable of eating away at Intel's dominant market share. But later in the year Intel shipped the Xeon 5100, codenamed "Woodcrest," an energy efficient, dual-core answer to Opteron. Then, Intel finished 2006 with a flourish, announcing its first quad-core chip, the "Clovertown" Xeon 5300 in November. The major server vendors quickly rolled out Xeon 5300-based systems.

If multi-core is the new megahertz, Intel's quad-core introduction left the chip giant clearly in the lead. Following Intel's release, AMD previewed a quad-core processor it has in development. But AMD's "Barcelona" quad-core isn't due out till mid-2007.

AMD claimed it has a "truer" quad-core design that more fully exploits the potential of four shared cores. The Intel Xeon 5300 packages two of its earlier dual-core Xeon 5100s to make it a quad-core.

"Our competitor patched two Woodcrests together; that's one approach," Kishna Weaver, an Opteron product manager, told internetnews.com. "Ours is native to one piece of silicon and we've made micro-architectural enhancements to each of the cores so you'll see a lot of performance improvements."

Still, Intel has the quad-core bragging rights for now. Kirk Skaugen, general manager of Intel's server platform group, said he expected Intel to ship a million quad-core chips before AMD ships one.