The team from the University of Glasgow in Scotland built the processor with the help of scientists from the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. Team leader Wim Vanderbauwhede plans to present the research at the International Symposium on Applied Reconfigurable Computing in March.
Researchers built the chip using an integrated circuit called a field-programmable gate array. As implied in the name, the integrated circuit is designed to be configured by the customer in the field, as opposed to being hardwired during the manufacturing process.
The FPGA enabled Vanderbauwhede to divide up the millions of transistors within the chip into 1,000 mini-circuits, or cores, with each working on it own instruction set. Transistors are the tiny on-off switches that are the foundation of an electronic circuit.
The researchers used the chip to process an algorithm that is central to the MPEG movie format, which is used in YouTube videos. The chip processed the algorithm at a speed of 5 GB per second, roughly 20 times faster than the fastest desktop computer.
"FPGAs are not used within standard computers because they are fairly difficult to program, but their processing power is huge while their energy consumption is very small because they are so much quicker -- so they are also a greener option," Vanderbauwhede said in a statement.
Researchers made the chip faster by giving each core its own dedicated memory. Today's multi-core processors share access to one memory source, which slows down the overall computing process.
Vanderbauwhede cautions that the chip built by the team is a "very early proof-of-concept" of the potential of FPGAs in creating much faster chips for future computers. The ICs are used today in plasma and LCD televisions and in network routers, but their use in standard desktops and laptops is limited.
Chipmakers Intel and ARM Holdings are building microchips that combine traditional CPUs with FPGA chips. Vanderbauwhede expects that kind of work to accelerate. "I believe these kinds of processors will only become more common and help to speed up computers even further over the next few years," he said.
Just adding more cores to a processor does not boost computer performance, analysts say. Researchers jamming more cores in chips have outpaced software makers' ability to rewrite applications to take advantage of the added processing power. Analyst firm Gartner has warned that unless design efforts of hardware and software are synchronized, the performance of operating systems, middleware, virtualization and other applications is unlikely to improve dramatically.
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