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Making The Move To Multicore

Quad-core processors are rapidly becoming standard equipment, not just for servers but for mobile and desktop systems too. Following the launch of its first mobile quad-core processors based on 45nm technology earlier this year, Intel began shipping second-generation quad-core server processors that deliver 25% higher performance than the company's first-gen quad-core servers. And Intel, IBM, AMD, Sun, and others are just getting started: All these companies are testing or have on their drawing boards massively multicore processors with as many as hundreds of processor cores per chip. These will bring the capabilities of supercomputers to everyday devices, to a level bordering on Buck Rogers science fiction-think real-time data mining across teraflops of data; full-body medical scans; artificial intelligence for smarter cars and appliances; and virtual reality for a wide range of modeling, visualization, and physics simulations.

Getting from here to there ain't gonna be easy, though. It will definitely take more than shelling out big bucks for new hardware to get Buck Rogers-level results. First off, there's a good chance IT departments standardizing on new quad-core technology will find that a big chunk of that expensive hardware is sitting idle because their software wasn't built to take advantage of multiple cores.

Don't want to be left out of the race to super-high performance? Then get your apps ready now.

Walking On The Sun

For years, IT shops have ridden a heady hardware performance curve as designers for computer chip architectures, from Intel and AMD to Sparc and PowerPC, delivered a series of souped-up chip designs that doubled in density and performance every 18 to 24 months. From the 1980s until a few years ago, transistor size consistently shrank, leading to higher densities and faster clock speeds-from 5 MHz in 1983 to 3 GHz in 2002-and performance gains that didn't require software changes.

But Intel CTO Pat Gelsinger's 2001 statement that continuing down the conventional design path would result in a chip whose surface would be hotter than the sun marked a sea change. Manufacturers gradually stopped pushing higher clock speeds, and since the Pentium 4 era, chip manufacturers have focused on improving density and turned en masse to hyperthreading and multicore.

However, the twist is that these new architectures don't automatically translate into higher application performance, as has been the case in the past.

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