Intel packs 80 cores on chip design to show off teraflop computing

Intel on Monday showed the potential of its multi-core strategy Monday with a reference design for a 80-core chip capable of calculating data at teraflop speeds with minimal power consumption.

The company’s research unit said the design, details of which were offered at the Integrated Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) this week in San Francisco, can be used to create a chip not much larger than the size of a fingernail while using less electricity than most of today’s home appliances.

Intel said it does not plan to make a product that matches the design precisely but that it will offer clues about future high-bandwidth interconnects and energy management approaches.

“It is very much a research project and it’s unlikely you’ll see a product with exactly 80 cores in the market,” said Doug Cooper, Intel of Canada’s country manager. “It’s more a case of gaining insight into what some of the issues might be in moving large volumes of data in a product like this.”

The chip design was developed under a research program Intel launched several years ago called “Era of Tera,” Cooper said, which is aimed at bringing down the costs and complexity of supercomputer-style machines that deal with enormous chunks of information. He highlighted several possible applications of teraflop processing, including simulation or data visualization, as well as more precise search techniques for images based on a wide set of parameters.

“What this says is we will be able to continue to offer performance that is tailored for specific applications but just generally to address IT needs without any visible boundary today,” he said. “What we’re really showing here is how we can do that by managing power consumption and using multiple cores.”

Linley Gwennap, an analyst who specializes in semiconductor research based in Mountain View, Calif., noted that the Cell processor offered by IBM and used in Sony’s PlayStation 3 already offers 256 gigaflops, which is one quarter of a teraflop. Gwennap said he expected other firms, including Advanced Micro Devices, to debut their own teraflop-level designs by the end of the decade.

“The key thing that Intel is demonstrating is getting teraflop computing down to an affordable level. Teraflop systems have been available for about 10 years, but up until now, they were pretty expensive systems, which has certainly limited their usage,” he said. “By putting it onto a single chip, that gets it to the point where it can start appearing on failry everyday kind of applications.”

Gwennap saw the greatest potential for teraflop processors in highly visual applications such as video games and health care.

Intel said it will be focusing the 100 or so tera-scale research projects under way on 3D memory and developing general purpose cores for its processors.


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