Intel foresees 1,000-core computers

Forget all about the benefits of dual-core vs. quad-core when it comes to the server of the future. Things are about to get real. One thousand cores of real.

At the Supercomputing Conference 2010 in New Orleans this week, Intel is giving the world a first look at what could be one of the technological breakthroughs of the future – its Single-Chip Cloud Computer (SCC) that it says could scale to more than 1,000 cores of computing power.

Now before you rush out and urge your clients to hold off on upgrading their current dual- or single-core servers in expectation that these 1,000-core beauties will be on disties’ shelves in time for year-end, it’s worth noting that what Intel is showing off is still very much theoretical. But the whole thing is worth noting. Here’s why.

First of all, some context: Intel’s SCC design was first revealed last year as a prototype for a 48-core, 45nm, 125W processor which links cores together over a high-speed on-chip network. Forget about a data centre in your office – this is a data centre in your server box, both in terms of processing power and network architecture. While the original instance used old Pentium processors for each core, paired up and then combined in those pairs into six-by-four processor arrays. Those arrays are then interconnected by an on-board router.

At the Supercomputing Conference, Intel announced that the resulting architecture is “arbitrarily scalable” and “could, in principle, scale up to 1,000 cores” before the mesh architecture connecting arrays would start to really drag down the performance of the overall system.

PC World offers a full rundown of the 1,000-core architecture here.

The whole thing reminds me a great deal of one of my favourite Onion articles of all times — a piece “written” by Gillette CEO James M. Kilts. (Warning: The language is a little Onion-ish for some work environments.) In the parody piece, Kilts responds to Schick’s leapfrogging Gillette’s own Mach 3 Turbo to launch the Schick Quattro, going from three razor blades to four. ”Kilts’” response is obvious: add another blade in an ever-increasing razor blade arms race.

And so, it seems, goes the computing market. Once upon a time it was a race to squeeze another few megahertz of clock speed out of a processor. Once that reached the limitations imposed by not being able to build computers out of the heat-resistant tiles that protect the space shuttle, the focus shifted from upping the frequency to increasing the number of processors on a single chip. We rapidly went from single-core to dual-core to quad-core and beyond. It seems inevitable that 1,000 cores would be the ultimate destination, or at least a healthy landmark along the way to the inevitable infinite-core computer of 2300 AD.

Still think a 1,000-core processor is a long shot? Need I remind you that The Onion’s jesting suggestion didn’t turn out to be so far-fetched after all? Less than a year after that article first appeared on the comedy news site, Gillette did in fact introduce a five-blade razor, the Mach 5 Turbo.

Next stop, the new AMD eleventy billion-core Athlon.