Intel keeps chasing chip speed

Despite the industry's focus on efficient chips in recent years, Intel will continue to build new designs for high-speed processors.


Despite the industry's focus on efficient chips in recent years, Intel will continue to build new designs for high-speed processors, including a prototype TFLOPS chip displayed at the company's Intel Developer Forum.

The popularity of the video-sharing Web site YouTube is evidence of a growing need for speed, reckoned Intel CEO Paul Otellini last week.

Downloading a 60-second video clip would have taxed more than 80 per cent of the power of Intel's circa 2003 Pentium M, and about half the power of its 2004-vintage Pentium 4, he told a crowd at the conference. That same clip calls for only a small percentage of the power of the Core 2 Duo, Intel's current top-of-the line PC processor.

The demand for better performance will continue to grow in coming months, since the price of high-definition camcorders is predicted to drop below $1,000 this holiday season. Complex video games and next-generation operating systems like Microsoft's Vista and Apple's Mac OS X also call for increased processing muscle, he said.

Apple made its first appearance at the Intel trade show, reporting that it has now transitioned its entire Macintosh PC line to Intel microprocessors. The chip's combination of fast processing and low power draw has allowed Apple to build creative products like an entire PC built into the back of a flat-screen monitor, said Phil Schiller, senior vice president for worldwide marketing at Apple.

Intel's short-term answer for the growing computing challenge is a quad-core chip, scheduled to ship for servers and high-end gamers by November and for a larger audience in the first quarter of 2007. In the meantime, Intel continues to make progress in photonic computing, using a chip-scale, electrically pumped laser announced last week.

The long-term answer could be a Frisbee-size chip capable of performance approaching one trillion floating point operations per second (FLOPS). Otellini showed off a prototype of a chip like that during his remarks at the conference. The technology could put the processing power of a room-size supercomputer on a single chip, enabling data-intensive tasks like real-time video search and real-time translations of speech into different languages, Otellini said. The chip fits 80 cores on a single die, running at 10GFLOPS per watt at 3.1GHz.

The mega data centres needed to feed such fast computers still demand improved power efficiency, said Luiz Barroso, a distinguished engineer at Google. One of the biggest wastes of computing electricity today is the power supply unit, which runs at just 55 per cent to 70 per cent efficiency as it struggles to provide a range of different voltages to a PC. In contrast, a single-voltage rail could provide 12 volts at 90 per cent efficiency, he said.

At the level of an entire data centre, about two-thirds of electricity produces wasted heat, not productive computing cycles, said Justin Rattner, Intel's chief technology officer.

Even Barroso's solution raises that sum merely to 50 per cent efficiency. So Intel engineers are working on a power converter that skips redundant stages, providing high-voltage DC power at 90 per cent efficiency, Rattner said. The improvement would allow companies to run 60 per cent more servers per megawatt, or keep the same number of servers and pay less for electricity, he said.

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