Monday, December 17, 2007

Faster chips are leaving programmers in their dust

When he was chief executive of Intel in the 1990s, Andrew Grove would often talk about the "software spiral" — the interplay between ever-faster microprocessor chips and software that required ever more computing power.

The potential speed of chips is still climbing, but now the software they run is having trouble keeping up. Newer chips with multiple processors require dauntingly complex software that breaks up computing chores into chunks that can be processed at the same time.

The challenges have not dented the enthusiasm for the potential of the new parallel chips at Microsoft, where executives are betting that the arrival of manycore chips — processors with more than eight cores, possible as soon as 2010 — will transform the world of personal computing.

The company is mounting a major effort to improve the parallel computing capabilities in its software.

"Microsoft is doing the right thing in trying to develop parallel software," said Andrew Singer, a veteran software designer who is the co-founder of Rapport Inc., a parallel computing company based in Redwood City, California "They could be roadkill if somebody else figures out how to do this first."

Grove's software spiral started to break down two years ago. Intel's microprocessors were generating so much heat that they were melting, forcing Intel to change direction and try to add computing power by placing multiple smaller processors on a single chip.

Much like adding lanes on a freeway, the new strategy, now being widely adopted by the entire semiconductor industry, works only to the degree that more cars (or computing instructions) can be packed into each lane (or processor).

The stakes are high. The growth of the computer and consumer electronics industries is driven by a steady stream of advances in both hardware and software, creating new ways to handle audio, video, advanced graphics and the processing of huge amounts of data.

Engineers and computer scientists acknowledge that despite advances in recent decades, the computer industry is still lagging in its ability to write parallel programs.

Indeed, a leading computer scientist has warned that an easy solution to programming chips with dozens of processors has not yet been discovered.

"Industry has basically thrown a Hail Mary," said David Patterson, a pioneering computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, referring to the hardware shift during a recent lecture. "The whole industry is betting on parallel computing. They've thrown it, but the big problem is catching it."

The chip industry has known about the hurdles involved in moving to parallel computing for four decades. One problem is that not all computing tasks can be split among processors.

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