IDF: Intel CTO Rallies Developers Around Multi-Core, Many-Core Processors

At the close of the 2011 Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco on Thursday, Intel CTO Justin Rattner walked attendees to the edge of Intel's research and development and gave them a tantalizing glimpse of what's coming.

In a keynote at IDF, Rattner illustrated several current use cases for multi-core Xeon processors and also touched on the capabilities of Intel's forthcoming Many Integrated Core (MIC) architecture. Intel's first 22-nanometer MIC chip, code-named Knights Corner, uses 3D Tri-Gate transistor technology and will feature more than 50 cores, Rattner said.

Developers are already impressed with what they're seeing from Knights Ferry, the software development platform for Knights Corner, which Intel expects to launch next year. "So far people are reporting great results, and most importantly, it’s an easy transition from multi-core to many-core architecture," Rattner told IDF attendees.

Rattner acknowledged that there's been some angst in the developer community about multi- and many-core programming but insisted that development for these chips won't require highly refined skills.

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"The way these have been portrayed, you'd think you have to be some kind of freak, or a ninja programmer," he said. "But multi- and many-core programmers look just like you and me."

To make his point, Rattner outlined examples of organizations that are using Intel architecture to deal with mountains of data. One such organization is CERN openlab, the research organization that oversees the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator.

Andrzej Nowak, a member of the CERN openlab team, joined Rattner onstage to talk about the computing challenges associated with the LHC, which has been called the most ambitious physics experiment ever devised.

The LHC operates at temperatures lower than those in outer space, accelerates particles to nearly the speed of light and conducts 40 million collisions per second. CERN openlab then captures the data for analysis, Nowak explained.

This is no easy task considering the sheer volume of data the LHC produces and the difficulty of identifying useful information within the torrent. To tackle the challenge, CERN openlabs built an LHC computing grid that includes around 250,000 Intel multi-core Xeon processors, according to Nowak.

CERN openlabs is also looking at Intel's MIC architecture, and Nowak said the fact that Intel is providing the same development tools for MIC as it does for multi-core Xeon is a major plus. "This allows us to apply our experience and it makes development easier, and we can port apps in days rather than months," he said.

Next: Intel's Advances On The Client

To illustrate what multi-core can do on the client end, Rattner brought out Brendan Eich, CTO of Mozilla and the inventor of Javascript. Javascript has become the primary programming language for the Web in large part due to the popularity of libraries such as jQuery, and it has also expanded to the server with Node.js, Eich said.

"Javascript on client is predominantly sequential, but we would like to utilize the full capabilities of multi-core," Eich said.

Intel's answer is Parallel Extensions for JavaScript, code named River Trail, an Intel Labs project that extends Javascript to enable data-parallel processing. It's available now through Github.

Intel is also working on building wireless LTE base stations using the same multi-core processors that ship with PCs. Rattner and Intel researchers gave a demo of the project, which is part of Cloud Radio Access Network, an initiative led by China Mobile that digitizes radio signals and moves them over fiber optic networks to base stations in data centers.

Real time communications is a huge engineering challenge, and Intel is handling this with software that uses multi-core and multi-threading techniques, Rattner said. Intel plans to launch field trials with China Mobile and other ecosystem partners next year.

"We would love to be able to tell the base station community there's an app for that," he said.

With Intel's MIC architecture expected to arrive next year, developers should start immersing themselves in its capabilities, Rattner told IDF attendees. And there's no reason to believe the hype because despite the technological advances MIC contains, it's not going to require super-human abilities.

"The time is now if you haven’t already to start building multi- and many-core applications, and you don’t need to be a ninja programmer to do it," Rattner said.