How to Take Advantage of Multicore PCs

Call it the great multicore discord: a parade of major hardware and software vendors promising desktop applications powered by multicore chips yet all marching out of step, leaving confused software developers in the dust -- but times are changing.

Far out front, chipmakers Intel and AMD have delivered quad-core chips for desktop computers earlier this year. And computers with dual-core chips are now the norm. But only the savviest of developers can harness this massive processing power by weaving a mind-bending web of code that foundational software vendors should have provided. So much of the multicore chips' processing power is unharnessed.

Software vendors are finally closing the gap: Microsoft, Apple, third-party platform vendors, and software developer consortiums are tweaking everything from the operating system schedulers to APIs to languages and libraries to make them multicore-friendly. The goal, of course, is to make it easier for developers to join the multicore movement.

There's no question that the pace is quickening, the gap closing. Apple, for instance, claimed earlier this month that its upcoming Mac OS X Snow Leopard will boast a new technology, code-named Grand Central, that supports multicore chips, along with developer tools that let applications leverage up to eight cores of processing power.

To take advantage of multicore-enabling technologies such as Grand Central and whatever Microsoft may be working on for Windows 7 (the company declined to comment), developers must move up a steep learning curve in areas such as multithreading, parallel, and concurrent.

The First Efforts to Tap into Multiple Cores

Getting a desktop application today to truly take advantage of multicore chips is akin to Olympian gymnastics in that only a few elite developers are capable of performing at the level required. "The emphasis is on elite," says Dave Lounsbery, vice president of collaboration services at the Open Group, an industry group that promotes standards and industry-wide best practices. "This elite developer is able to go in and directly interact with the thread libraries and other things. He'd know that if he called the XYZ graphic function, it wasn't safe, and therefore, he'd be going from multicore to one core."

But most developers aren't Olympians, and so need development tools and operating systems to handle much of the multicore effort for them.

Software vendors are beginning to rise to the challenge, according to a Forrester Research report, by delivering low-level language extensions and libraries. For example, RapidMind offers a software development platform that allows developers to exploit quad-core AMD Opteron and Intel Xeon processors, which are typically used in servers. Graphics processor developer Nvidia provides its developers with a parallel programming language and libraries, called Cuda, to help developers access the graphical processor in a PC. But neither approach addresses the broad challenge: unlocking the multicore chips on desktop PCs and Macs for a broad range of applications.

However, some efforts are under way to make the multiple cores of today's PCs available to app developers. Apple's Grand Central is meant to help Mac developers do so. The European Commission said it will spend nearly 5 million euros to underwrite a project for building a framework -- APIs, OS extensions, and language support -- for Java-based, real-time applications on multicore chips called the Java Environment for Parallel Real-time Development, or Jeopard. (The Open Group is one of the organizations partaking in the project.)

Recently, the Khronos Group, an industry consortium, formed the Compute Working Group to come up with a royalty-free standard for building multicore applications. Although the group has focused mainly on industry standards for tapping into graphical processors for better graphics and rich-media display, its latest effort seeks to tap into both graphics processors (which tend to have multiple cores) and multicore CPUs as a virtual set of coordinated processing resources that can be used for any purpose. The standard, which may come to market in as little as six months, "will take care of a lot of the architectural decisions and automatic mapping across the resources," says Neil Trevett, president of the Khronos Group and vice president of mobile content at Nvidia.

Trevett says there's a good chance the Compute Working Group will embrace Apple's Open Computing Language (OpenCL) specification, which aims to let app developers tap directly into graphics processors. Mac OS X Snow Leopard will support OpenCL, which is based on the C programming language.

To help .Net developers learn about the underlying parallel programming techniques requires to tape multiple cores, Microsoft launched the Parallel Computing Initiative, which includes a concurrency runtime, a technology preview for parallel extensions to the .Net Framework 3.5, domain-specific libraries, packaging application services to allow rich virtualization experiences, and profiling tools.

Forrester expects more choices to hit the market over the next two years.

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