Rob Jamieson on the need to adopt and adapt

11 September 2009

With emerging technologies, reduced power consumption, and an economic downturn, chip design is changing. It’s no longer just about being faster. It’s also about working smarter, writes Rob Jamieson

It’s happened to me three times now. I’m in the US, order a nice big juicy steak and chips from the waiter, but when my order arrives it’s got crisps on the side instead. We just don’t eat steak with crisps in the UK – you’d have thought I’d have learnt my lesson by now!  Why am I on about chips? Well first of all there are more of them - not the ones next to my steak but those inside your workstation, both CPUs (Central Processing Units) and GPUs (Graphics Processing Units). But there is also a trend to make the most of the available resources, which is particularly appealing in this current economic climate.
 
Back in the 60s, a chap named Moore came up with a law that said transistors on a chip will double in number every two years and more transistors equal more performance. To increase the amount of transistors on a chip you have to shrink the die size, and while this process ticked along nicely for decades, during the last few years technological issues have slowed down this shrinking process. As a result, in order to keep pace with Moore’s law, chip manufacturers have also increased the number of processors on a single CPU and multi–core CPUs are now standard. The number of processors on a graphics card has also increased.

A new driving force

While keeping up with Moore’s law and delivering ever increasing levels of computational performance is important for CAD/CAM/CAE it is no longer essential in the consumer sector. A case in point is the netbook, which enables users to happily browse the web, watch a video or write an email on a relatively low powered computer. Virtually all modern processors can satisfy these requirements and in this sector, chip development is all about reducing size, weight and power requirements.

While these characteristics are essential to drive forward lightweight mobile computing, they may also have a bearing on future developments at the high-end, particularly as software and hardware become more adept at harnessing the power of multiple chips. In a single system, for example, if the chips or dies are made so they interconnect to create a new pipeline, a powerful new solution can be created from smaller and easier to manufacture components. And as they are smaller they are easier to cool and run faster as well.

Merging technologies

This shift in chip development is not just limited to CPUs. Linking all the processing technologies together is a way of making maximum use of all the power in your workstation. Doing this effectively though is not trivial and is a problem that needs to be solved by software developers, but you can see that it’s already starting to happen. OpenCL (Open Computing Language), for example, can run on a workstation with lots of CPU or GPU power. It will detect what performance is available and use it as necessary. DirectX 11 is also launching later this year with Windows 7 and this is likely to incorporate new technologies, such as the tessellator, which uses a GPU, rather than CPU to sub divide meshes on the fly.

Changing times

While manufacturers will continue to produce chips with more and more computational power in the quest to keep pace with Moore’s law, finding new uses for existing hardware or integrating multiple technologies is becoming increasingly pertinent, particularly in this current economic downturn.

At the moment the market is dictating that we only need enough computing power for the task at hand. This is a typical reaction in times of trouble. But while downsizing from a ‘steak to a burger’ and getting the job done faster with fewer resources might be the current ideal, with the economy starting to perform better it will be the companies that adopt the new technology and make it work for them that will come out winners.

Rob Jamieson is a marketing manager at AMD. All this talk of chips, crisps, steaks and burgers has made him rather hungry. This article is his own opinion and may not represent AMD’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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