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Intel still hungry for the thrill of speed

Prototype teraflop chip shown off

Despite the industry's focus on efficient chips in recent years, Intel will continue to build designs for high-speed processors, including a prototype teraflop chip displayed at the company's IDF (Intel Developer Forum) event.

The popularity of the video-sharing website YouTube demonstrates this growing need for speed, Intel chief executive Paul Otellini said yesterday.

Downloading a 60-second video clip would have taxed more than 80 percent of the power of Intel's 2003-era Pentium M, and about half the power of its 2004-vintage Pentium 4, he told a crowd at the conference. That same clip calls for only a few percent of the Core 2 Duo, Intel's current top-of-the line PC processor.

This demand will continue to grow in coming months, as the price of high-definition camcorders is predicted to drop below $1,000 (about £530) this holiday season. Complex video games and next-generation operating systems such as Microsoft's Vista and Apple's OS X also call for increased processing muscle, he said.

Apple made its first appearance at the Intel trade show, reporting that it has now transitioned its entire Macintosh PC line to Intel microprocessors. The chip's combination of fast processing and low power draw has allowed Apple to build creative products like an entire PC built into the back of a flat-screen monitor, said Phil Schiller, senior vice president for worldwide marketing at Apple.

Intel's short-term answer for the growing computing challenge is a quad-core chip, scheduled to ship for servers and high-end gamers by November and for a larger audience in the first quarter of 2007. In the midrange, Intel continues to make progress in photonic computing, using a chip-scale, electrically pumped laser announced last week.

And the long-term answer could be the prototype of a frisbee-size, teraflop-speed chip Otellini showed off during his remarks at the conference. The chip could shrink the processing power of a room-size supercomputer down to a single chip, enabling data-intensive tasks such as real-time video search and real-time speech translation between languages, Otellini said. The chip fits 80 cores on a single die, running at 10 gigaflops per watt at 3.1GHz.

The mega-datacenters needed to feed such fast computers still demand improved power efficiency, said Luiz Barroso, a distinguished engineer at Google. One of the biggest wastes of computing electricity today is the power supply unit, which runs at just 55 to 70 percent efficiency as it struggles to provide a range of different voltages to a PC. In contrast, a single-voltage rail could provide 12 volts at 90 percent efficiency, he told the show crowd.

At the level of an entire data centre, about two-thirds of electricity produces wasted heat, not productive computing cycles, said Justin Rattner, Intel's chief technology officer.

Even Barroso's solution raises that sum merely to 50 percent efficiency. So Intel engineers are working on a power converter that skips redundant stages, providing high-voltage DC power at 90 percent efficiency, Rattner said. The improvement would allow companies to run 60 percent more servers per megawatt, or keep the same number of servers and pay a cheaper electric bill, he said.


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