A chip with 64 "cores" -- now that's speedy!

A start-up finds a way to squeeze lots of independent processors on a single silicon chip.

Published August 20, 2007 6:26PM (EDT)

If you want a fast computer, you need to look for a lot of "cores." This has lately become a fact of marketing as much as of technology; a multi-core computer chip contains more than one processing unit on a single piece of silicon, meaning that you get several workhorses doing different things in the same space.

Today's mainstream computers -- the Macs and PCs that run on Intel's Core 2 Duo chips, for instance -- are multi-core machines, using two cores on their primary processors. You can get even more cores: Check out the Mac Pro, which, for about $4,000, can be outfitted with two quad-core chips. Eight cores! Blazing!

But today comes a chip that makes eight cores look like a puny Little Mac of computing. A start-up called Tilera has unveiled a processor it calls TILE64. The chip contains 64 cores, each of which can run Linux, and, together, deliver 30 times the speed-per-watt of electricity of an Intel Xeon dual-core processor.

The chip is being marketed for high-speed network serving functions -- prices start at $435 each, minimum order 10,000 -- so it won't help you out if you're just looking to play games. But its technology may still come in handy, because Tilera seems to have solved one of the key problems in multi-core computing -- how to get each of the many cores in a processor to communicate with each other efficiently.

The multiple cores on today's chips are connected by what's known in the jargon as a "bus," an information pathway that has not really kept up to date with advances in chip speed. Think of the bus as a single line that runs between various cores -- a line that can get clogged at rush hour, slowing down system performance.

Tilera's chip, the product of Defense Department-funded research by the company's founder, MIT professor Anant Agarwal, eliminates the bus. Instead, cores are arranged in a grid on a chip, and can communicate with each other through one of several routes.

The system, the company says, "creates an efficient two-dimensional traffic system for packets, much like the layout of a modern city's streets."

News.com's Michael Kanellos points out that other firms -- including Intel and Sun -- have put forward ideas for their own redesigns to the communication system between multiple cores on a chip. But those designs aren't ready. Tilera's 64-core chip will ship to customers within a few months.

[P.S.: If you're scratching your head over the reference to Little Mac, here's your answer.]

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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