Processor Whispers: Deep black, weak red and fractal complex numbers
by Andreas Stiller
Apple, Google, IBM, Intel – the IT market is buzzing. Leaving only AMD to step up a gear. Sadly IBM has lost a famous Fellow Emeritus: Benoît Mandelbrot, prominent mathematician and chaos theorist, died on the 14th of October.
Thanks to its successful “iWare”, Apple scored a profit of $4.3 billion, clearly besting IBM ($3.6 billion), Intel ($3 billion) and Google ($2.2 billion) for the first time. Only Microsoft’s profits might be higher – the new numbers are not yet available, but Microsoft earned $4.5 billion in the previous quarter. Apple is also the current number one in market capitalisation, ahead of Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and IBM. As for revenue, HP clearly continues to be the IT market leader with about $30 billion, followed by IBM with $24.3, Apple with $20.3 and Microsoft with $15.2 billion.
Although Intel only managed to meet the lowest expectations last quarter, it now shines with a turnover of $11 billion and a profit of $3 billion. Meanwhile, competitor AMD has not fared so well. According to chief executive officer Meyer, the private-consumer demand was lower than expected. As a consequence, in comparison to the previous quarter, AMD's numbers dipped further into the red, to a loss of $118 million with a revenue of $1.62 billion dollars. Still, both numbers are significantly better than those for the same quarter a year ago.
Other reasons for the poor results are probably increased competition from NVIDIA in the desktop sector and the trend towards tablet PCs eating away at notebook sales. In comparison to the second quarter, the turnover of the graphics chip branch has dropped by 11%. However, with the Fusion processors Ontario, Zacate and Llano (all of which feature an integrated DirectX 11 GPU) AMD has some quite attractive products up its sleeve for the beginning of next year, while neither NVIDIA – lacking an x86 CPU – nor Intel – lacking DirectX 11 support – will be able to offer similar processors. Besides, according to news that recently leaked through the internet, unlike Intel’s planned counterparts, AMD’s Hudson chip-sets (the nobler M3 and D3 versions) will come with USB 3.0.
The Llano, which, according to AMD – in spite of all rumours about problems with Globalfoundries’ 32-nm process – is still slated for mid-2011, is supposed to deliver 400 to 500 Gflops (in single precision) together with the integrated GPU. The design of its core will most likely be far more modern than expected due to AMD’s confusing use of “K” labels, as used internally by its engineers and by AMD’s marketing. When vice president Chekib Akrout, head of the Technology Group, said something about a “significantly improved K8”, he was apparently talking about an improved Phenom II “Deneb”, although without L3 cache.
Mandelbrot set forever
On the 14th of October, the creator of the Mandelbrot Set, Benoît Mandelbrot, died at the age of 85. The mathematician, who was born in Poland and grew up in France, had spent most of his professional life with IBM at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center where he was appointed as an IBM Fellow in 1974. An IBM Fellow is an outstanding position that provides a lot of freedom for self-directed research and development projects. The Fellows from IBM’s European research centre at Rüschlikon in Switzerland are a good example of how successful this can be. Fellows Gerd Binning, Heinz Rohrer, Georg Bednorz and Karl Alexander Müller have been awarded the Nobel Prize.
As there is no Nobel Prize for mathematicians and the Fields Medal is only given to young pups below the age of 40, Mandelbrot was awarded the Israeli Wolf Prize as well as the Japan Prize – two other awards of the highest international acclaim – for his research on the fractals that now carry his name and on chaos theory. During the last 25 years, we have continuously enjoyed using his simple Mandelbrot algorithm to illustrate the possibilities provided by new processors and instruction sets (80387, Weitek, MMX, 3Dnow!, SSE, SSE2, CUDA, MPI). We will honour his memory and make sure we torture the next upcoming processors – with AVX, LNI and whatever else might be down the road – with his fractals.
We once created a neat version – with a lot of dedication – for IBM’s Cell processor, too. Maybe parts of it will continue to be useful in the future. In any case, IBM’s head technologist, Jai Menon, has recently again emphasised that Cell-like structures will be found in future hybrid Power processors – just not as independent chips for the PowerXCell line. IBM can’t make any changes concerning the production of the current Cell chips for Sony’s PlayStation 3 anyway. In any event, IBM intends to stay active in the video console business, be it Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Nintendo’s Wii or Sony’s PlayStation. The question is, are they already working on new special processors for this market?
IBM traditionally develops into all possible directions. Amongst other projects, it also supported (as well as Intel, Sun, the National Science Foundation and the DARPA) the TRIPS project (The Tera-op, Reliable, Intelligently adaptive Processing System), which is in development at the University of Texas. This project, which started seven years ago, originally had the goal of completing a scalable teraflop processor by 2012. In 2006, a first ASIC prototype was finished, but lately things have been very quiet on this front.
Meanwhile, Intel seems set on encouraging the research community to get busy with its proprietary massively parallel test chips like the Single Chip Cloud Computer SCC. Worldwide, there are currently 51 research projects from the academic and the industrial sector contributing to the “Many Core Applications Research Community”. MARC was brought to life by Intel at the 10-year anniversary celebration of its laboratories in Braunschweig, Germany, at the end of September. And which one of their first demonstrations can now be admired in a video by Microsoft Research on YouTube under the topic “Microsoft Visual Studio + SCC Message Passing Environment”? The Mandelbrot Set, of course. Now guess what Microsoft has in mind as first demo application for the Excel cluster?