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Innovation

X marks the chip

Remember the Transputer? Probably not - unless you were involved on the technical side of the UK IT industry in the 1980s.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor on

Remember the Transputer? Probably not - unless you were involved on the technical side of the UK IT industry in the 1980s. The Transputer was a UK-designed processor intended to be used in parallel systems where, if you wanted more oomph, you just added more chips. It ran a rather exotic parallel language called Occam - ah, the irony - and never lived up to its promise. Ordinary non-parallel chips managed to improve fast enough to keep the price:performance advantage, and you had to have at least two heads to be able to squeeze the goodness out of the Transputer. The whole thing shuddered to a halt in the early 90s, after original Transputer company Inmos was bought out by SGS-Thompson and development of the next-gen T9000 part went sadly astray.

There's a huge story to be told here - but it would be just history, if it wasn't for a few interesting 2007 facts. First, non-parallel chips aren't improving nearly so fast as once they did, which is why everyone's going multicore; second, everyone saw this coming, so parallel programming is now much more mainstream; third, the inventor of the Transputer, Bristol University Professor David May, is about to unveil a new company called XMOS, based on... parallel processing. And based on FPGAs - hardware reconfigurable circuits widely thought to contain the potential to rewrite the rule book for computing, if only someone could work out how. No details as yet, although May's home page contains some tantalising hints. He's big on concurrency, rethinking the whole way programming works, and so-called zero-power computing -- a theoretically possible world where computation takes such little Joulery that devices can run on the picowatts they can extract from their immediate environment. Mmm. Mungo like reversible computing.

Watch this space.

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