Intel debuts test chip with supercomputer speeds

14 Feb 2007

Intel has taken the wraps off a prototype 80-core chip, giving it supercomputer-like processing capabilities. The experimental microprocessor can make one trillion calculations per second – one Teraflop in chip-speak.

This is in contrast to current chips shipping in most standards PCs today, which have two processor cores on a single piece of silicon.

According to Intel, the first supercomputer with equivalent processing power was ASCI Red, developed 11 years ago as a series of 10,000 connected Pentium PCs in a computer room that produced so much power that it required an additional 500kW just to keep cool.

Now, the teraflop chip (pictured) is a piece of silicon barely bigger than a fingernail that consumes less electricity – just 62 watts – than many home appliances.

Whereas the common PC is often used for relatively routine tasks such as creating office documents, sending email and browsing the web, supercomputers are typically used for very high-end computing that requires very fast processor performance. Applications include real-time speech recognition, space shuttle design, weather forecasting and predicting climate change.

Intel’s Leixlip campus was involved in the project, with local engineers taking the designs and fabricating them onto a silicon chip at the company’s Irish operation.

In briefings, Intel executives claimed that the prototype teraflop chips could find their way into standard PCs, laptops and servers within five years. As it stands, the new chip design is not compatible with current commercially available Intel processors but work has already begun to adapt this technology in line with today’s chips.

The greater processing power promised by the new teraflop chip could be put to a range of uses. Reports of demos held in the US referred to multimedia applications such as automated video editing, where a computer could create a highlights reel of a person’s favourite sportsperson. Alternatively, the chip would allow digital and real-time video to be blended together.

From a business perspective, it’s thought that the teraflop chip could be used for improving tasks such as virtualisation, which is starting to take hold among organisations that have large amounts of servers and want to get the best use out of them.

By Gordon Smith