Intel began sharing a programmable 48 core processor with researchers, according to reports published today. That is progress towards a future generation of computing, but don’t expect the technology to significantly impact your life for many more years to come.
The processor, which Intel calls a “single-chip cloud computer,” is about 20 times more powerful than Intel’s most powerful six and eight core processors that are available on the market today. It also provides that capacity while remaining energy efficient.
It might sound revolutionary, but it is just the evolutionary progression of the many-cores trend that has occurred over the past several years. Intel showed off its ability to design an 80 core chip in 2007, and very little has changed from the end user’s perspective over the past two years.
Increasing the clock speeds of silicon chips was becoming an unsustainable practice due to the diminishing returns in performance that were gained against the increase in costs, energy and heat that was being generated by even a modest uptick in speed. That’s why we have multicore hardware in our PCs today – it’s the only practical way to make them more powerful.
Parallel computing also ended the free ride that programmers had gotten with each succeeding generation of processor becoming more powerful. It’s now time for the average programmer to handle challenges that had only come up in academia.
The promise is applications that can do what was previously impossible on a desktop machine, but companies like Intel need to make that relatively easy to do without requiring too much specialized knowledge. Parallel computing allows many jobs to happen at once, so, for example, a chess program could consider every possibility before making a move.
There are also performance benefits; an operating system could scale in performance when more cores are added, and Web sites will be capable of handling more transactions. MySpace is already using parallel technology from Microsoft to manage distributed transactions across its server farms, for load balancing and failure handling.
But programmers must first understand how to create applications that work well with many core processors before your desktop computer becomes an unbeatable chess player. Democratizing those skills will require education, new languages, extensions to existing languages, specialized tools, and even new operating systems. Intel’s 48 core processor is a catalyst for that work to happen, and its arrival does not mean that the future is now.