By Rick MerrittDecember 28, 2006
This may go down as the year the electronics industry woke up to the full breadth and significance of the trend to multicore processors.
Next year promises some stepwise advances, including the advent of the first multicore benchmarks and applications programming interfaces. But in time it may also be remembered as the year the industry realized what designers of multicore software and interconnects already know: Many years of hard work lie ahead.
Intel Corp. and archrival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. helped popularize the trend to multicore processors. They grabbed headlines repeatedly in 2006, leapfrogging each other in their race to field two- and four-core CPUs for mainstream computers.
Meanwhile, the much quieter embedded world pushed the boundaries with processors that in some cases packed more than 200--even 500--cores on a die. Further stretching the limits, cell phone chip makers like Texas Instruments routinely shipped processors with a variety of cores. Even low-cost electronic toys got into the act, as LSI Logic Corp. rolled out an ASIC platform using three or four cores of different types for consumer gadgets.
The number of cores on a die replaced megahertz as the new metric for microprocessors, as silicon engineers shifted their focus to increase performance while keeping a lid on power and heat. All the activity made it clear that a new day had arrived, and that CPUs and software will need to respond.
"You can buy multicore laptops, desktops, cell phones, PDAs, multicore anything--even my 7-year-old is using a multicore system," said Anant Agarwal, a longtime pioneer in parallel computing and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Because of this widespread adoption, software developers have finally come to grips with the fact that programming as they knew it is not going to be the same any more--they will be doing parallel programming going forward," Agarwal said.
"In fact, one person sent me an e-mail asking if single-threaded Unix applications are doomed," he added.
John Goodacre, the program manager for multiprocessing at ARM Ltd., agreed. "[In 2006] I've seen the market move from positions of confusion and fear over multicore to acceptance and adoption across a broad range of market segments," said Goodacre, whose company has licensed more than 10 chip companies so far to use its ARM11 MPCore multicore processor.
The hardware move is driving a mind shift in software, Goodacre said. "Generally, there is a view that multicore programming is hard and that existing code investments cannot utilize the multicore solution. I expect 2007 to be the year that the software community's current hesitancy toward multicore is dispelled," he said.
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