Discussing the Many-Core Future

By Paul Tulloch

March 23, 2007

With the onset of multi-core processor technology, it has been widely suggested that we are at a turning point in the history and future of computation. Quite simply, we can no longer squeeze more computational capacity out of single-core technology given the current impasse of increasing the speed of individual cores. We have hit the wall, as the saying goes.

With the objective of continuing on the quest for a Moore's law type of computational speed-up, the hardware industry has introduced multi-core technology. This will, as recently demonstrated by Intel with their future-oriented 80-core chip, lead from a multi-core to a many-core future. Potentially down the road, assuming a continued trajectory, this could lead to the development of a massive core future whereby one chip could contain thousands of processing cores.

With this sea change in the architecture of the hardware, we are witnessing the software community wrestling with a massive shift from serial-based thinking to parallelism. From a cursory reading of recent articles on the topic, the prevailing view affixes a quite blunt and negative reaction to this grandiose trajectory that the hardware community has set in motion.

Some within the software community have gone so far as to suggest that with the recent advances in hardware, they have been thrown the “hail Mary of all passes” in the quest to meet the economically institutionalized expectations for computational speed up. Some have suggested that the challenges of parallelism bestowed onto the software industry will have programmers looking into the abyss, and ultimately the whole model, which has served as the far reaching engine of technological innovation, could come to a crashing halt.

With this type of feedback coming from the software community, could it be that we are witnessing the end of an era? Could it be that in ten years from now, when I fire up my word processor, that what I currently have in front of me will be as good as it gets? In many ways, the software community is presenting the case for such an argument.

The stakes are quite high and are economically far reaching. The increasing speed up and the promise of more and faster technology, combined with some large portions of institutionalized marketing, propelled a once small industry dedicated to the scientific community into the heights that brought about astonishing change, in such a way that it is typically compared to the industrial revolution. It is a prime mover and leveler of almost everything existing. And that which it did not destroy and rebuild anew, was fundamentally altered.

Existing single-core technology and the innovation of faster and better were the shoulders that much stood upon. If the software challenges of parallelism prove to be the insurmountable obstacles that some within the software community have alarmingly claimed, then we may need a whole rethinking of the innovation process. Marketing may keep the process going for awhile yet, but it can only take it so far, before finally the emperor's clothes are revealed for what they are not.

I will suggest that it is precisely this mindset that has been prevalent within the culture of technology decision making, and is quite the contrary of how we should perceive this move from a serial present to a parallel future. In a Schumpeterian creative destruction type fashion, I would suggest that instead of bemoaning the death of single-core technology and the limits of serial computational speed-up, we should be celebrating their death. We should instead realize given the change to many-core technology, we are finally going to have the ability to feasibly put low cost high performance computing on the desktop. It is a time to realize that we have finally established a beach head on the shores of real computational power. Finally the visions of many long ago dreams of what the computer could be are within reach. Finally an end to minimalist thinking and an end to a hardware architecture that has outlived its usefulness.

So how could such a viewpoint hold and is it rationally based given the contrast to the grim mindset that is beginning to beset the software industry faced with such paradigm shifts? Well, given the opportunity, I will attempt to paint with broad brush strokes the logic of such thinking. First off, one has to firmly establish what is coming down the pipe from the hardware industry and the architectural changes that we will most likely see in the clear and present future. Like anything else within the realm of innovation and predictions of the future, it is subject to much speculation and shrouded in secrecy. However it is becoming somewhat clearer of late.

Intel recently displayed its currently-in-the-lab, future-oriented prototype 80 core chip with a stated computation capability of one teraflops. Thus revealing that not only is the current multi-core architecture not a passing fad, but legitimate plans are in place for the development of a many-core future. The new architecture will not just be an amazing array of many-core processing nodes but will come with a refreshing and imperative twist.

With a not-to-be-out-done response to Intel's look into the future, AMD recently unveiled its latest R600 GPU technology. The said demonstration system running two R600 GPUs in crossfire mode, labeled a “teraflop in a box,” provides for some soon-to-be-released computational speed-up, clocking in at the stated threshold of one teraflops. If we look into the prospectus of AMD with its stated intention of combining the functionality of both the CPU and the GPU into a single chip, we see a future that provides for a heterogeneous many-core architecture.

It has been quite clearly demonstrated through general purpose computation on GPUs by various groups, such as the GPGPU.org community, that the architecture within the GPU excels at many computationally intensive applications. It has been shown that it achieves a speedup of anywhere from 5 times to, in some documented cases, 70 times the speed of a CPU, measured in flops.

The GPU has struggled since its inception to be taken seriously as anything but an add on, accelerator type extension to the CPU. However in its “grand finale” as a discrete entity, it has, through innovation based on the gaming and graphics community's needs, and rather large wallets, eclipsed its master in abilities to deliver computational speed. Albeit, the original architecture was originally designed with a quite specific and limited goal. However, it has evolved and now a more generalized computational ability based upon data parallelism is being earmarked for this architecture. The joining at the hip of these two architectures will open up a whole new realm of possibilities.

In rather general terms, based upon these two simple but quite revealing demonstrations, the future landscape of hardware architecture will be a blend of specialized CPU and GPU type cores. Programmers will have handfuls and handfuls of threads dangled before them from an array of specialized cores to deliver their craft upon. It will offer up latent computational speed many times over what is available under the current single-core design. But getting back to our debate, how will software developers make use of this multitude of threads supplied by specialized cores in a manner that keeps the quest for faster and better circulating? What will the future of the software industry look like? More importantly, will the cycle for continual and somewhat staged releases of technology keep the consumer wanting to buy new and better chips, and new and better software? Will the pump remain primed or will the well run dry?

The dynamic as so rightly denoted by the software industry is no longer centered on how fast a single core can run a serial process, but how efficiently a program can make use of the available cores and threads. However, upon examining the software community's noted negative response, I would suggest it could be deemed a bit of a knee jerk reaction as it unjustly focuses criticism on the most difficult of future challenges that parallelism presents, while seemingly discounting a whole new array of possibilities. That is they have confined their focus on how efficient these cores can be programmed from a traditional task parallelism stand point. I say unjustly, as it is precisely the asymmetrical distribution of how these cores and threads will be unleashed and applied to a whole new set of programming challenges that is the key to realizing and envisioning this new dynamism and its potential.

We will see a multitude of programming strategies and methodologies that develop within the cultural space of software design. The distribution of outputs and solutions will run the gambit from hard core task parallelism, to data parallelism, to a hybrid or light parallelism and right back to the traditional serial. (Recall that not every algorithm can be parallel programmed.) Some focus on the difficulties and complexities of task parallelism is warranted and will be important for advancing computational speed up, but it is a limited perspective. The problems with hard core task parallelism are well documented, however given the leverage that a mass market offers, the traditional nuances of these programmatic challenges will be subjected to new market forces away from the confines of academia and highly specialized scientific realms. Potentially opening up the field to creative solutions that traditionally only a mass market can deliver.

With respect to other forms of parallelizing, data parallel initiatives would seem to offer the most immediate speed up in terms of intensive parallel innovations. As indicated, the general purpose GPU community have made some quite impressive inroads into this new territory. Stream computing on a GPU has matured to a point that commercial applications of such technology are becoming commonplace. And lastly, new forms of lightly parallelized applications are most likely the initiatives that will be introduced to the market place on a wide scale. These applications will be made up of helper or add on enhancements to many mainstream applications such as word processing, databases, spreadsheets and an assortment of others. They will come in the form of voice recognition, search facilities, translation services, hand writing recognition, and a slew of others. I label them lightly parallel, as they will be application independent, but will have some limited memory sharing, and concurrency dimensions.

On the mass market front, without even considering the possibilities of parallelism, we will see serially-based multitasking reach new heights that spring board the slow advance of the desktop computer to the center of the household as users are allowed to concurrently load up their computer with a myriad of multi-media, entertainment, communication and home monitoring software. On the work front we shall see information workers, who are currently drowning in an information and data torrent, finally equipped with the appropriate tools to initiate a regime of control and analysis required to informate and extract the knowledge that has been elusive since the early stages of the developing knowledge economy. Extreme multitasking will also open up the space for virtualized workstations, i.e., assigning cores from a central server to each workstation, thus allowing for significant cost savings from both a hardware and systems maintenance perspective.

As indicated above, the many-core future has much to offer and additionally will open up and bring into the mass markets some key software fields that due to computational requirements have had limited exposure. For example the potential of AI, machine learning, data mining and statistical decision making have only been touched upon under the guise of single-core technology. The fields of opportunity are abundant and ripe. The shift to parallelism will allow a harvesting that when we finally get to the other side we will realize was our destiny.

It will take some fundamental change in perspective to realize this potential. Perhaps what is at the heart of the software community's concerns is a much needed rethinking of the functionality between the hardware and software industries. The fates of both industries are no longer mutually exclusive. They can no longer operate in their relatively independent states. This is ultimately the reason we should be celebrating the death of single-core technology. The fates of both industries are now tied together in a bond that will be the key to their mutual growth and success — more than ever.

The days when the hardware industry simply designed and produced with the goal of faster and better are over. The equation for successful innovation given this new parallel future has upped the ante with further complexity. With this, I would conclude that rather than focusing on the short sighted hard core task parallelism that seems to have arisen recently, a rethinking of the very nature of the relationship between the hardware and software industries is required. One may immediately conjure up visions of a “Wintel” type of argument in the making. However, the critical mass of this rethinking is targeting something far deeper than a vendor relationship. The aim is to establish a more organic relationship between these two institutions. It may seem like a quite ethereal objective, but given the dimensions of the responses so far to parallelism, it leaves one wondering how these two trajectories could advance this far without more of a constructive and shared vision.

—–

About the Author

For over 14 years, Paul Tulloch served as a senior economist/data analyst and builder of quite a number of survey and administrative data processing systems for Canada's National Statistical Agency, Statistics Canada. He has also been seen from time to time working as an independent consultant specializing in statistical analysis, data mining and machine learning. He has for several years focused on studying, researching, and quantifying through both his work and formal study at the graduate level the subjects of innovation, work and the emerging knowledge-based economy.

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