Intel shows experimental 48-core 'single-chip cloud computer'

Three years ago, Intel told everyone about a prototype "tera-scale" processor built out of 80 streamlined cores. The company subsequently announced Larrabee, a graphics processor with many x86-based computing units that should come out next year. If you think that was the end of Intel's many-scale aspirations, think again. The chipmaker has now pulled the curtain off the "single-chip cloud computer," a concept processor that houses 48 "fully programmable" x86 cores on a single silicon die.

This chip also features a "high-speed on-chip network" as well as "newly invented power management techniques that allow all 48 cores to operate extremely energy efficiently." Intel built the single-chip cloud computer using the same 45-nm process as current Core processors, yet it says the part draws only a maximum of 125W, and its power consumption can dip as low as 25W. (By contrast, the fastest quad-core, eight-thread Core i7 CPUs have 130W thermal envelopes.)

What's the point in having all of those compute resources on a single piece of silicon, even if it's so power-efficient? The company explains:

The concept chip features a high-speed network between cores to efficiently share information and data. This technique gives significant improvement in communication performance and energy efficiency over today's datacenter model, since data packets only have to move millimeters on chip instead of tens of meters to another computer system.

Application software can use this network to quickly pass information directly between cooperating cores in a matter of a few microseconds, reducing the need to access data in slower off-chip system memory. Applications can also dynamically manage exactly which cores are to be used for a given task at a given time, matching the performance and energy needs to the demands of each.

Related tasks can be executed on nearby cores, even passing results directly from one to the next as in an assembly line to maximize overall performance. In addition, this software control is extended with the ability to manage voltage and clock speed. Cores can be turned on and off or change their performance levels, continuously adapting to use the minimum energy needed at a given moment.

Intel expects future products based on this type of design to enable "entirely new software applications and human-machine interfaces." The press release even goes so far as to bring up thought-controlled computers. No joke.

To spur the research needed to bring such innovations, Intel plans to share a hundred or so single-chip cloud computer prototypes with partners in "industry and academia" next year. It doesn't provide an estimate of when we may see actual products materialize, though; this looks still to be very much at the research stage.

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