‘WinTel’ to Fund Parallel Computing Research

The multi-core revolution is in full swing, if still in its infancy. Dual- and quad-core systems are the standard today and it’s virtually impossible to buy a new single-core based computer.

Chip designers are pushing the envelope by producing CPUs – even if they’re only research prototypes – with many more cores. Intel, for instance, a year ago demonstrated a processor with 80 cores that can run at a teraflop – a trillion operations per second.

Ten years from now, however, even that will likely be insufficient to handle the computing tasks of the day.

In order to keep moving forward, the world needs a hardware and software architecture that takes multi-core parallel processing to a higher level – hundreds and even thousands of cores, researchers say.

At least, that’s the rationale for why Intel and Microsoft announced Tuesday plans to fund two new university research centers whose charter will be to work on the hard problems facing the industry longer-term.

In a conference call with press and analysts, the two companies said they will contribute a combined $20 million in a five-year effort in order to set up two Universal Parallel Computing Research Centers (UPCRC) – one at the University of California at Berkeley and the other at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).

Additionally, UC Berkeley is asking for the state of California to kick in $7 million in matching funds, while UIUC is contributing $8 million of its own funds.

“We’re very excited to address some of the challenges in large-scale parallelism,” said Andrew Chien, vice president of Intel’s corporate technology group and director of Intel Research.

Research at the two centers will center “on advancing parallel programming applications, architecture and operating systems” for multi-core processors, a joint statement from Intel and Microsoft said.

While there are other labs and companies working on many of the same problems, the two companies and the two universities characterized the project as “the first joint industry and university research alliance of this magnitude in the United States focused on mainstream parallel computing.”

“Future systems should not only assist with computational tasks, but also enhance our ability to interact with each other and with our environment using natural communication and visual interfaces,” according to a statement from the UIUC.

“We need to develop parallelism that extends from the laptop to the petaflop,” said Tony Hey, corporate vice president of external research at Microsoft Research. A petaflop is one thousand trillion operations per second – a thousand times faster than Intel’s 80-core research prototype.

Marc Snir, professor of computer science at UIUC who will co-head the UPCRC in Illinois, was enthusiastic about the new research effort.

“[In the future], we should be able to each carry in our pocket a supercomputer,” Snir said.

Before selecting UC Berkeley and UIUC to house the new centers, Intel and Microsoft evaluated a total of 25 different universities that are considered “top-tier” institutions in the field of parallel computing research, the companies said.

“[The question is] How do we make it possible to develop computers with hundreds of cores,” said David Patterson, professor of computer science, who will head the UC Berkeley center.

Snir and co-head Wen-Mei Hwu, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UIUC, will have a staff of 20 faculty members and 26 graduate students and researchers. Patterson will lead 14 faculty and 50 doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers at UC Berkeley.

For their money, Intel and Microsoft will have non-exclusive, royalty-free rights to intellectual property that results from the research with the option to negotiate exclusive licenses, according to Hey. In addition, the fruits of the research will also be available to others via BSD open source licenses.

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