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Computing in a Parallel Universe

Multicore chips could bring about the biggest change in computing since the microprocessor

Brian Hayes

The Impasse

Free lunch is great, but there's still a bill to pay for breakfast and dinner. Throughout the past decade, chip designers have struggled with two big problems.

First, although CPUs are a thousand times faster, memory speed has increased only by a factor of ten or so. Back in the 1980s, reading a bit from main memory took a few hundred nanoseconds, which was also the time needed to execute a single instruction in a CPU. The memory and the processor cycles were well matched. Today, a processor could execute a hundred instructions in the time it takes to get data from memory.

One strategy for fixing the memory bottleneck is to transfer data in large blocks rather than single bits or bytes; this improves throughput (bits per second), but not latency (the delay before the first bit arrives). To mitigate the latency problem, computers are equipped with an elaborate hierarchy of cache memories, which surround the processor core like a series of waiting rooms and antechambers. Data and instructions that are likely to be needed immediately are held in the innermost, first-level cache, which has only a small capacity but is built for very high speed. The second-level cache, larger but a little slower, holds information that is slightly less urgent. Some systems have a third-level cache.

Reliance on cache memory puts a premium on successfully predicting which data and instructions a program is going to call for next, and there's a heavy penalty when the prediction is wrong. Moreover, processor chips have to sacrifice a large fraction of their silicon area to make room for caches and the logic circuits that control them. As the disparity between memory and CPU speed grows more extreme, a processor begins to look like a shopping mall where the stores are dwarfed by the surrounding parking lot. At some point, all the benefits of any further boost in processor speed will be eaten up by the demand for more cache.

The second problem that plagues chip designers is a power crisis. Dennard's scaling laws promised that power density would remain constant even as the number of transistors and their switching speed increased. For that rule to hold, however, voltages have to be reduced in proportion to the linear dimensions of the transistor. Manufacturers have not been able to lower operating voltages that steeply.

Historically, each successive generation of processor chips has scaled the linear dimensions by a factor of 0.7, which yields an area reduction of one-half. (In other words, density doubles.) The scaling factor for voltages, however, has been 0.85 rather than 0.7, with the result that power density has been rising steadily with each new generation of chips. That's why desktop machines now come equipped with fans that could drive a wind tunnel, and laptops burn your knees.

In the future, even the 0.85 voltage reduction looks problematic. As voltage is lowered, transistors become leaky, like valves that cannot be completely shut off. The leakage current now accounts for roughly a third of total power consumption; with further reductions in voltage, leakage could become unmanageable. On the other hand, without those continuing voltage reductions, the clock rate cannot be increased.

These problems with memory latency and power density are sometimes viewed as signalling the end of Moore's Law, but that's not the apocalypse we're facing. We can still pack more transistors onto a chip and manufacture it for roughly constant cost. The semiconductor industry "roadmap" calls for increasing the number of transistors on a processor chip from a few hundred million today to more than 12 billion by 2020. What appears to be ending, or at least dramatically slowing, is the scaling law that allows processor speed to keep climbing. We can still have smaller circuits, but not faster ones. And hence the new Lilliputian strategy of Silicon Valley: lots of little processors working in parallel.

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