February 2007
The Promise and Perils of the Coming Multicore Revolution and Its Impact
John McCalpin, Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.
Chuck Moore, Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.
Phil Hester, Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.

Heterogeneous Architectures

It is straightforward to demonstrate that, assuming different resources have different costs, a homogeneous multicore chip cannot be optimal for a heterogeneous workload. Expansion of the design space to include heterogeneous processor cores adds many new degrees of freedom. Parameters that might vary across cores include:

  • Base ISA
  • ISA extensions
  • Cache size(s)
  • Frequency
  • Issue width
  • Out of Order capability

The myriad possibilities created by multiplying the homogeneous multicore design space by this extra set of degrees of freedom are both exciting and daunting.
Of course multicore processors will not be limited to containing CPUs. Given the widespread incorporation of three-dimensional graphics into mobile, client, and workstation systems, integration of graphics processing units (or portions of graphics processing units) onto the processor chip seems a natural evolution, as in AMD's announced "Fusion" initiative. Other types of non-CPU heterogeneous architectures may become logical choices in the future, but today none of the contenders appear to have the critical mass required to justify inclusion in high-volume processor products.

Too Many Cores

While the short-term expectation of 4-8 CPU cores per chip is exciting, the longer-term prospect of 32, 64, 128, 256 cores per chip raises additional challenging issues. During the peak of the RISC SMP market in the late 1990's, large (8p – 64p) systems were expensive and almost always shared. Individual users seldom had to worry about finding enough work to do to keep the CPUs busy. In contrast, the multicore processor chips of the near future will be inexpensive commodity products. An individual will be able to easily afford far more CPU cores than can easily be occupied using traditional "task parallelism" (occupying the CPUs running independent single-threaded jobs). In 2004, for example, a heavily-configured 2-socket server based on AMD or Intel single-core processors typically sold for $5,000 to $6,000, allowing a scientist/engineer with a $50,000 budget to purchase approximately eight servers (16 cores) plus adequate storage and networking equipment. Since the explosion in popularity of such systems beginning around the year 2000, many users have found that these small clusters could be fully occupied running independent serial jobs, or jobs parallelized only within a single server (using OpenMP or explicit threads). Assuming that vendors deliver at approximately the same price points, 16-core processor chips will provide 256 cores for the same budget. Few scientific/engineering users have such large numbers of independent jobs (typically generated by parameter surveys, sensitivity analyses, or statistical ensembles) and do not consider such throughput improvements a substitute for improving single-job performance. Clearly, the prospect of a 128-core chip providing 2048 threads for a $50,000 budget calls for a fundamental change in the way most users think about how to program and use computers. There is therefore a huge burden on the developers of multicore processors to make it much easier to exploit the multiple cores to accelerate single jobs as well as a huge opportunity for computing users to gain competitive advantage if they are able to exploit this parallelism ahead of their competition.

What about Bandwidth?

The flexibility allowed by multicore implementations, along with the quadratic or cubic reduction of power consumption with frequency, will allow the development of processor chips with dramatically more compute capability than current chips. Sustainable memory bandwidth, on the other hand, is improving at a significantly slower rate. DRAM technology has improved its performance primarily through increased pipelining and this approach is reaching its practical limits. Power consumption associated with driving DRAM commands and data, consuming data from the DRAMs, and transmitting/receiving data and probe/snoop traffic to/from other chips are growing to be non-trivial components of the bulk power usage. As noted above, historical data suggests that systems supporting less than about 0.5 GB/s main memory bandwidth per GFLOP/s of peak floating point capability are significantly less successful in the marketplace. Looking forward to, for example, eight cores with four floating point operations per cycle per core at 3 GHz, it is clear that 100 GFLOPS (peak) chips are not a distant dream but a logical medium-term extrapolation. On the other hand, sustaining 50 GB/s of memory bandwidth per processor chip looks extremely expensive. Even if DDR2/3 DRAM technology offers data transfer rates of 1600 MHz (12.8 GB/s per 64-bit channel), actually sustaining the desired levels of memory bandwidth will require many channels (probably eight channels for 102.4 GB/s peak bandwidth), meaning at least eight DIMMs (which can easily be more memory than desired), and will require on the order of 40 outstanding cache misses to reach 50% utilization. (Assuming 50 ns memory latency, the latency-bandwidth product for 102.4 GB/s is 5120 Bytes, or 80 cache lines at 64 Bytes each. So it will require approximately 40 concurrent cache line transfers to reach the target 50 GB/s sustained bandwidth.)

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Reference this article
McCalpin, J., Moore, C., Hester, P. "The Role of Multicore Processors in the Evolution of General-Purpose Computing," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 1, February 2007. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2007/02/the-role-of-multicore-processors-in-the-evolution-of-general-purpose-computing/

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