Sunday, August 17, 2008

Now for something close to my heart: microprocessors. I have a question for you: is microprocessor design dying? I ask, because chips like Intel's Atom are perceived as innovative, when, in fact, Atom is a through back design. An analyst was asked by a publication is he thought Atom would be one of the innovations of the year. Atom is dual-issue, in-order design where low power trumps performance. The architecture is stripped down and basic, not innovative. The innovation is in the marketing of it.

Another piece of evidence: MIPS is planning as layoff. It's been pretty obvious that MIPS ran out of ideas and has been coasting on the designs of Cavium and RMI to keep it relevant and setup boxes and PS2 for revenue. It was destined to be squeezed by POWER from above and Arm from below, but MIPS gave in with a whimper, not a real fight.

The big iron guys like IBM and Sun still keep moving along, but the excitement now comes from the promise of many smaller cores working together (what Sun calls Throughput Computing) with processors like Niagara and Larrabee, only there's this problem with creating mainstream software for many-core processors. And if the goal IS more cores/mm2, those cores are going to be rather simple in design (like the x86 cores in Larrabee).

So, we dump the problem onto the programmers and sit back and yell: "What's the problem? Can't you programmers figure out how to split that code over a bunch of cores? What's so hard about that?"

Well for graphics, it isn't too tough, because there's all these pixel to work on in parallel. It's also reasonably well known in data base, web serving, and some super-computer programming. But it's still going to be a challenge for many other applications.

Then again, maybe we have to ask: are processors already good enough for typical client workloads? Therefore, we don't need particularly powerful client microprocessors, just really good Internet connectivity to cloud computing and low power. Gamers and professional content creators will be the lone users of powerful client computers. Like with cars, everybody is worried about gas mileage today and only a few crazies still care about performance.

I'm just asking.

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