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April 23, 2013

Adapteva Shows Off $99 Supercomputer Boards

Tiffany Trader

Last week, Adapteva revealed the first production units of its $99 Linux “supercomputer.” Speaking at the Linux Collaboration Summit in San Francisco, California, CEO Andreas Olofsson announced the first batch of Parallella final form factor boards will be shipped to the chipmaker’s 6,300 Kickstarter supporters by this summer.

Inspired by Raspberry Pi’s success, Adapteva created Parallella to be “affordable, open, and easy to use” with the intent of democratizing parallel computing. The platform launched last fall with 5,000 backers purchasing 6,300 boards in four weeks via Kickstarter. Since Jan. 1, another 5,000 signed up to reserve their boards. Adapteva has spent the last six months working to deliver on its promise.

With less than five minutes to go in his 21-minute talk, Olofsson made the big reveal. The company had just received its very first boards, said the CEO, reaching inside his suit jacket to pull out both 16-core and a 64-core versions. The engineering team had to make a few tweaks with a soldering iron, but they were able to successfully run applications and read and write to the coprocessor.

“The hardware is looking great,” says the CEO. “Six months ago when we started this project, we said, we think we can put all this stuff on a credit card and we know it should cost a hundred dollars, but we don’t know if we can do it or not. It was six months of not knowing if we can really deliver on this project. We were confident, but not 100 percent – and just seeing it working, and coming very close on price point as well, it’s a good feeling.”

The credit card sized parallel computer consists of a dual-core ARM A9 processor, 1GB RAM, and either a 16-core or 64-core Epiphany Accelerator Chip. It’s outfitted with two USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, an SD Connector and a Micro HDMI connector. The Epiphany development toolkit is included at no extra charge.

Developed by Adapteva over the last four years, the Epiphany chips employ a scalable array of RISC processors that are programmable in C/C++. They are connected together with a fast on chip network within a single shared memory architecture.

The Parallella computer runs Ubuntu Linux. The 66-core version of the Parallella computer (that’s two A9 ARM cores + 64 RISC processors) is expected to deliver 90 gigaflops (comparable to a theoretical 45GHz CPU) while consuming about 5 watts under typical workloads.

Next >> The Parallel Future

In a video on Adapteva’s website, Olofsson further details the impetus for the project: “People have been doing single-threaded performance, having one processor running one task at at time and that’s worked great, but then we hit a frequency wall, and then we hit a memory bottleneck and things just stopped. So what we see for the last year is that performance hasn’t improved as much as it should.

“We’re now stalling and if we don’t do anything about it all those great strides we made over the last 30 years where things would get better every single year, they’re going to stop, and the answer is parallel performance performance. It’s the only way to really scale in terms of energy-efficiency, performance and cost.”

“Despite being so small, we managed to tape out a 64-core, 28-nanometer chip that works, and burns 2 watts at 100 gigaflops, making us the most efficient microprocessor company in the world,” noted the CEO in his talk last week. Even with these impressive claims, it took some time for the company to attract serious interest, but micro-financing via Kickstarter and the growing demand for energy-efficient systems have altered the playing field.

“The practical vision for today is heterogenous computing,” states Olofsson. “Let’s use the tools we have available today and let’s make a system that is more efficient than one thing can do. There’s no magical all-you-can-do tool. In our toolbox, we have big CPUs, x86, and ARM. With so much legacy in them, they’re not going away anytime soon.”

But there are other options, says the CEO, including FPGA logic, GPUs, analog, and asymmetric processing, where an ARM or x86 chip handles the bulk of application processing, while hundreds or even thousands of small RISC CPUs are set to one task such as floating point co-processing. This is where Parallella, with its heterogenous and scalable parallel hardware, fits in.

The future is undeniably parallel, Olofsson asserts, and meeting the challenges of this coming paradigm will require a concerted effort. He recommends a four-fold strategy, that includes rebuilding the computer ecosystem, rewriting billions of lines of code, re-educating millions of programmers, and rewriting the education system.

According to Olofsson, the only way to achieve these goals is to have a completely open approach, and that means open software and hardware. The platform should also be accessible, which means it needs to be inexpensive and easy to program.

As for Parallella’s killer app, early customer feedback indicates it’s all over the map. There’s interest in using the platform for software-defined radio, ray tracing/rendering, image processing, robotics, gaming, photography, media servers, signal processing as well as HPC. “It’s a computer you can use anywhere,” observes Olofsson.

Adapteva has a busy year ahead. In addition to filling the initial 6,300 orders, the company is also founding the Parallella Academic Program, building a sustainable supply model, and working toward massive parallelism with Parallella-1024. “We could put a thousand cores on a chip tomorrow, if someone wanted us to,” says Olofsson.

“The really good news is we have boards working…and we’re going to ship them this summer,” concludes the CEO.

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