Intel's 80-core concept car

Intel's 80-core Teraflops Research Chip shows what it thinks the future of processors may look like

If Intel were to do a concept car ala General Motors or Toyota, an 80-core chip is exactly what it would build.

The chipmaker’s Intel Research group, at this week’s International Solid-State Circuits Conference, unveiled more of the details behind its 80-core Teraflops Research Chip. The chip, which was first disclosed at its fall Intel Developer Forum in September 2006, is made up of 80 so-called tiles, each of which includes a simple VLIW (very long instruction word) processor core, including two floating point units. Intel says the chip can deliver a supercomputer-like performance of one teraflop or one trillion floating-point operations per second. The chip, made up of 100 million transistors, is 275 millimeters squared, larger than one of Intel's PC processors.

But the teraflop chip is exactly like an Intel concept car in that it won’t hit the market in its current form. Nor is the chip necessarily complete in that Intel has yet to attach memory to the chip. That, to me, makes it more like a proof-of-concept engine design that’s awaiting the necessary accessories to feed it gas and mate it to a car chassis. Those will come in time, however.

The teraflop chip’s design and assembly processes by themselves was no small feat. They included mapping out the structure of its each core and, once combined, methods of regulating their clock speeds and attaching the pipelines needed to keep each core communicating with those around it and to keep it flush with data. Intel calls this structure, which is made up of a series of channels and an onboard router for each core, a mesh interconnect. Clearly, providing an 80 core chip with enough data is key. An 80-core chip with 40 idling cores isn’t of as much use as one in which all 80 are at hard at work. Although it would make sense to shut down a certain number of the cores if they weren’t needed in order to cut power consumption. To that end, Intel also equipped the cores with instructions that allow them to turn on and off—or to turn off individual components inside themselves to save power—based on application demand.

Intel researchers created the teraflop chip mainly because they needed to understand the challenges of physically assembling a processor with tens and tens of cores before attempting to integrate it into a system. However, Intel researchers are already devising methods to connect the teraflop chip and or other many-core processors to memory as well as to take other steps to build the processors into systems, such as computer servers.

Under a project known as Tera-scale Computing, Intel researchers are already working on a number of the items that would be needed to integrate a many-core chip into a server. Among them are high-speed memory. Intel researchers have been working on a three-dimensional stacked memory, which can be connected directly to the many-cores inside the teraflop chip, or one like it, by stacking the chips on top of one another. This approach of attaching memory will be used to help feed chips’ many cores the large amounts of data they will need to operate at peak efficiency.

At the same time, Intel is also addressing on software through a variety of programs, including its own Intel Software Group and its work with university programs. The idea behind designing a many-core chip is to break up data into numerous pieces and quickly process it in parallel. However, operating systems and applications must be able to support the many threads for many cores paradigm. This, too, will take a large amount of work to put into place. Thus you see Intel getting started on it fairly early in the process. Meanwhile, I would expect that the chipmaker is also working on devising internal chip hardware to help enable or assist processing data in parallel as part of its efforts to work with software developers.

While I don’t necessarily think you should bank on having an 80-core processor in your notebook by 2012, Intel's teraflop chip demonstration shows where the chipmaker believes the market might be headed by that time. Intel is attempting to get a head start. Even though the teraflop chip in its current form is unlikely to the market—the only chip in Intel’s lineup to be based on VLIW is the Itanium—Intel researchers and chip designers will use the ideas generated from constructing and working with the teraflop chip to build the next several generations of the company’s processors.

Thus the 80-core chip could wield a significant amount of influence the PC industry for many years to come.

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