Intel 48-Core "Single-Chip Cloud Computer" Improves Power Efficiency

Intel unveiled an experimental CPU (central processing unit) cramming 48 processing cores into a single, stamp-sized piece of silicon. There are obvious implications in terms processing capabilities taking a quantum leap from what we use today, but what's truly amazing is the power consumption and power management features of the chip.

The CPU arms race has gone from focusing on the speed of the processor, to how many processors can be squeezed into a single chip. Dual-core processors are the standard these days, with quad-core processors being relatively mainstream, and 6-core and 8-core processors representing the sort of cutting edge of what is currently in mainstream production.

Intel and its competitors have engineers working diligently to push the envelope and figure out just how many processing cores can fit on a single chip. Tilera has produced 36 and 64-core chips, and recently announced a 100-core processor. Graphics vendor Nvidia is working on a 512-core GPU (graphic processing unit).

Intel actually developed an 80-core processor a couple years ago, but it was much more proof-of-concept with little practical application. This latest expansion of the CPU-core real estate horizons is more functional and includes some innovative technologies that improve power efficiency.

Intel has dubbed the IA32 processor a "single-chip cloud computer" (SCC) because the relationship of the processing cores within the chip is similar to the networked servers in a datacenter and the processing capacity provides a virtual cloud computing datacenter within the single chip.

The 48 processors are divided into 24 dual-core "tiles". Each tile has a router and the collection of tiles forms a mesh network capable of communicating at 256 Gb/s. The tiles also form the basis of Intel's innovative power management for the chip.

Each of the tiles is capable of independently varying the frequency the cores operate at. The tiles are grouped by fours (a total of 8 processing cores) and each grouping of tiles can run at its own voltage. The 48-core SCC can vary the voltage and operating frequency of the tiles in the mesh network to operate from 25W to a maximum of 125W.

That's right. Intel is running the equivalent of 12 quad-core processors in a single chip, but only consuming power equivalent to one quad-core CPU. The implications for organizations to maximize processing capacity in smaller data centers, requiring less cooling, and reducing power consumption all at the same time are significant.

Commercial production of a chip like the 48-core SCC is a long way off--Intel is producing 100 of them to share with key partners and researchers so they can begin to develop software that can take advantage of 48-core technology.

Windows 7 is capable of managing up to 256-core processors, so bring it on. Hopefully Microsoft and other software vendors won't get too crazy with complex per-core licensing models. That could make things both complicated and expensive rather quickly.

Tony Bradley tweets as @PCSecurityNews, and can be contacted at his Facebook page.

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