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Behind The Curtain At Intel Research

The chip vendor rolls out research prototypes in chips, mobile computing, and tera-scale computing.

Three words sum up the dozens of research projects at the core of Intel's future microprocessors and chipsets: power, efficiency, and mobility.

The chipmaker on Wednesday showed off researchers and prototypes at the company's Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters to try to dazzle reporters and analysts with what Intel hopes will be the next big thing.

And by big, Intel means teraflop chip performance, or the ability to crunch a trillion arithmetic calculations per second as the baseline. Among the technologies on display was what Intel called the "first tera-scale silicon prototype."

A prototype of Intel's 80-core chips.
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A prototype of Intel's 80-core chips.

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The 80-core processor, 13 millimeters by 22 millimeters, was equivalent in power to a teraflop supercomputer that 10 years ago would have filed a room 40 feet by 10 feet, Paolo Aseron, a hardware engineer at Intel's microprocessor lab in Hillsboro, Ore., said. "This is a proof of concept, numbers-crunching monster."

Built using a 65-nanometer manufacturing process, each core has 5-Kbytes of cache and two floating-point units. Compared to Intel's quad-core processors today, the prototype has 40 times the processing power, Aseron said.

Tera-scale computing is the future for Intel chips and platforms. The company currently has more than 100 R&D projects worldwide dedicated to addressing hardware and software challenges associated with systems that would be based on processors with dozens of cores.

Justin Rattner, chief technology officer for Intel, told attendees the company's first tera-scale processor, codenamed Larrabee, would be capable of processing "well in excess" of a teraflop of data. The processor is set for release in 2010, but could show up in 2009, he said.

To help software developers deal with tera-scale systems, Intel has developed a programming model called Ct, which extends the programming languages C and C++. In essence, the model deals with the complexity of parallelization, which is spreading the workload of a task among multiple processors to produce faster results.

Ct makes it possible for developers to program as if they are writing applications for one core, Mohan Rajagopalan, a research scientist at Intel's Santa Clara lab, said. Code is optimized for multiple cores when it is compiled, and during runtime.

Intel plans to release a preview of Ct to the open-source community in the near future, Rajagopalan said. "We're still working out the legal issues in making the whole project open source."

In demonstrating possible uses for tera-scale computing, Intel chose video editing and computer game development. The first involved the use of software smart enough to detect patterns within a 90-minute video of a professional soccer game, and extract some of the highlights.

To do that, Intel researchers had to create a model that enables the computer to learn to recognize important plays, much like a spam filter can learn to separate spam from legitimate e-mail. "We can train the computer to detect the highlights based on the model," Xiaofeng Tong, researcher at the Intel China Research Center in Beijing, said.

The demonstration involved highlight-extracting software running on a computer powered by an Intel dual-core chip. The next step, which wasn't demonstrated, would add activity analysis, so the system would know the difference between a foul and a goal. Such a system would need an eight-core processor capable of 100 gigaflops. In order to perform action analysis on every play the Intel model would have to run on a 64-core processor, Tong said.

In computer game production, Daniel Pohl, a German developer of videogame technology, demonstrated the use of a "ray-tracing algorithm" that enables the rendering into a 2-D format animation built by artists using 3-D tools. This is necessary because computer screens only show 2-D images.

Today, most artist-created images are converted using a rasterization method that takes a 3-D image described in a vector graphics format and converts it into pixels for output on a computer screen. Ray tracing produces a higher quality image because the algorithms are better at rendering light and shadow, Pohl said. "There are no algorithms that do it right in rasterization."

In showing the higher quality images, Pohl used a version of the Raven Software computer game "Quake 4" that he had rewritten. Of course, more detail requires more horsepower, so the game ran on four Intel quad-core processors.

With tera-scale computing comes the need for power efficiency. For some time, Intel has developed chips that are more powerful, but consume the same amount of energy as previous versions.

To help continue that trend in tera-scale computing, Intel is developing "adaptive circuits" within a processor that would determine the minimum amount of performance required for a task. "We have a brain in the chip," Bryan Casper, principal engineer for Intel's Circuit Research Lab in Hillsboro, said. All power associated with a task is turned down to a "just-enough" level.

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