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4/7/2006
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Rapport Unveils Chip With 256 Cores

The startup promises low-powered chips with more than 1,000 processing cores in 2007.

Multicore processors have gone mainstream and increasingly are showing up in PCs, servers, and business data centers. Now Rapport, a startup backed by some industry veterans, wants to take multicore to the extreme with a huge mass of processing elements that promise high throughput at low power.

Rapport, headed by the former leaders of Think Technologies and backed by semiconductor pioneer Gordon Campbell, came out of stealth mode last week promising to set a new standard with an architecture that combines 256 processing cores in a single chip. By mid-2007, Rapport says, it will integrate more than 1,000 processing cores on a chip that uses much less power than regular chips.

Rapport's chances of success may be iffy, but attacking computing challenges with arrays of processing cores isn't new. Numerous companies--ranging from NEC and Micron to startups Azul, PicoChip, and QuickSilver Technology--have demonstrated and built processors with dozens or hundreds of processing elements on a single chip. But they've only had limited success in selling to the commercial market.

You can count all 256 cores, says Rapport's CEO Andrew Singer.

You can count all 256 cores, says Rapport's CEO Andrew Singer.
Rapport CEO Andrew Singer says his company's Kilocore technology is ready to make an impact on everything from handheld Internet appliances and smart phones to high-end applications such as a mobile "supercomputer in a suitcase." Rapport has customers, Singer says, but he won't name them just yet.

Based on technology developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon, Rapport's first commercial chip is actually a third-generation design, Singer says. The Kilocore256 features 256 8-bit arithmetic logic units that can be daisy-chained to handle up to 128-bit instruction lengths or used in parallel to handle multiple functions simultaneously. The cores each run at 100 MHz and together can perform 25 billion operations per second, while only using around a half-watt of power.

Sometime next year, Rapport plans to introduce the Kilocore1025, which will combine 1,024 of the 8-bit ALU processing elements with a PowerPC core licensed from IBM that will be used as a supervisor processor. The PowerPC core also will let Rapport tap into the large installed software base supporting the PowerPC architecture. The Kilocore elements in that processor are expected to run at about 250 MHz and deliver a quarter of a trillion floating point operations per second at less than a watt of power, Singer says.

Rapport will face a challenge making significant inroads into the handheld processing market, which is dominated by processors based on the ARM microarchitecture. Semiconductor maker Intel, whose XScale processor is based on the ARM architecture, has poured billions of dollars and years of effort into the handheld market with only limited success.

Still, Rapport has achieved a major step forward. "We have a real product, not a proposal," Singer says. "Those numbers are not theoretical projections but actual measurements. If you look at the history, there are a large number [of chip designs that] never got into silicon. The fact is, this stuff is really hard to do."

That may be so. But what's still unclear is whether there's much of a market for such extreme multicore processors.

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