The Technology eZine - Computers
The Next Generation of Computer Processors
Intel announced early this month it had made an experimental processor chip - nicknamed Tukwila - with an astounding two billion transistors on one piece of silicon. That's an almost fourfold increase in transistors on one substrate since 2004.
It has also been called Chipzilla - a take off on Godzilla by industry wags. The first generation of Tukwilas - itself a descendant of Intel's Itanium processor line - was announced in 2006 when it cracked the one billion transistor bar.
The new chip is a quad-core chip: four independent processors operating together on one substrate. This works faster than a single processor because it allows each separate core process instructions at the same time, rather than having them queue for a single processor.
Tukwila runs at a modest 2 GHz, less than half the 4.7 GHz in the worlds fastest processor, announced by IBM - in 2007. The IBM chip, however, with 790 transistors, has less than half the number of transistors than the Tukwila.
While this certainly makes the new chip a monster processor, its less a revolution than an evolution in processor design. Many of the additional transistors are used for memory and register storage, providing faster access to certain types of data, rather than using the systems RAM.
Again that's another trend: to provide more cache memory on the chip rather than depending on separate memory units. That cache 30Mb of storage - is one of the reasons Tukwila can operate at such a low speed: memory components, especially cache memory, don't need to run as rapidly. Since the cache is so close to the processor, the electrons don't have to travel as far either (half the distance equals double the speed, effectively).
The CPU speed doesn't reflect the speed of data transfer to and from this cache. Using a technology called QuickPath Interconnect, Intel's Tukwila has a bus transfer speed of about 4.8 GHz. QPI will be integrated into all of Intel's next-generation chips, including the x86 chip upgrades expected later this year.
Where Tukwila bucks the trend is in its increased power consumption: a 25 per cent jump over previous generations, and rated at 170 watts.
Don't shelf your old PC quite yet the Tukwila is designed for high-end servers, not home and small business computers. It will not be the next chip for gamers. And its only announced, not in production - it wont be available until mid-2008, and at a price that will have IT managers shaking.
Its not the end of the line, either. Tukwila still uses the older 65nm technology, which is much larger than Intel's 45nm technology and twice as large as the still-experimental 32nm dies. The previous generation of Itanium was based on a 90nm technology.
It is theoretically possible to cram a lot more components onto the same size substrate by using the smaller laser die. Many pundits are predicting four billion transistors on a single piece of silicon using these small-scale technologies by 2010 about the time the Tukwilas successor, the Poulson, is scheduled for release.
At which point we should be expecting a speed of 5 to 6 Ghz and broad market capability.
Remember that if you load your hard drive full of data, your computer might also slow down. However, if you start using the cloud to store your information, your hard drive wonít be nearly as bogged down. The cloud is essentially an online location where you can store your files. This way your processor is not so encumbered by all of these applications and you donít have to sacrifice anything by deleting half of your files. Remember to look into how to secure your cloud before putting too many of your files online. As long as you have cloud security, youíll have safe files and a fast computer.
The Challenge of Overheating
There is still a problem of overheating processors which can cause your computer to slow down or spontaneously restart. The solution is to have a really good cooling system, but unfortunately liquid nitrogen is still really expensive.
But here's a thought. What about freon? The chemical used in refrigerators and air conditioners. We've been using freon for decades now, doesn't it make sense to use it as a coolant as well? Basically all you need is a mini air conditioner where your computer fan normally goes.
The alternative is to store your computer in a cold basement because it will go faster and have less shut down problems there, but who wants to sit in a cold basement all the time? Or worse, a freezing meat locker.
Theoretically computer speed is governed by three things: Power, miniaturization of the chips and our ability to keep the chips cool. 110 power if we're in North America, 220 if we're in Asia or certain European countries (which theoretically means we will be going at half speed in North America).
Tukwila and Poulson above is the advancement of miniaturization, sqeezing more power into a smaller space (and reducing the distance the electrons have to travel), so one of the few remaining obstacles is overheating (which can be really bad if your server crashes).
Whatever the future holds, whether it be freon or liquid nitrogen, I have to wonder: Will it ever get fast enough that we stop worrying about speed? No more load times, just instant gratification? I hope so.