Feeds

Honey I shrunk the chip ... now what?

Lumpy atoms

Next gen security for virtualised datacentres

Bigger is better in pastries, paychecks and bank accounts, but not in electronics. A recent story in HPCwire caught my interest and got me thinking about what the end of the shrink road might portend – and the potential alternatives.

The ability to steadily shrink the size of the processor brains that drive computers – and pretty much everything else – has driven computer performance since the advent of the microprocessor.

But now that we are at 32nm (nanometer) and moving toward 16nm and even 14nm (see Intel’s recent announcement), we don’t have all that many nm to go until we hit the limits of what's possible under the laws of physics. When you get too small, you can run into problems at atomic scale.

IBM Fellow and all-things-chip guru Bernie Meyerson explained this clearly and concisely several years ago when he predicted that Intel's single-core 5GHz chip would never see the light of day.

With images from an electron microscope, he showed how extremely small chip pathways can be reduced to the point where they are just a few atoms thick. This sounds fine until you learn that atoms aren't nice, round balls the way they are presented in textbooks.

Lumpy atoms

Atoms can be kind of lumpy. When you have only a few forming a guardrail on your chip electronic roadways, they allow electricity to leak through, which leads to more heat and energy use. Cranking up the GHz in a chip increases the heat generated to the point where it surpasses the ability of the materials to handle it.

This physical limitation on processor frequency led us to the multiple core world we see now. The only way to get more performance out of processors is to use the real estate gained by shrinking on-die components to provide duplicate cores and run parallel workloads on them at reasonable frequencies.

Some options for future chip designs are discussed in the HPCwire story, including HP’s compute-memory hybrid memristors, which could come to market as a flash substitute this year. Joint research by IBM and Samsung into carbon nanotubes is also mentioned. I think we will see a combination of different technologies come into play as we bump up against the shrinking benefits of process shrinking. (Wow, that's going out on a limb, isn't it?)

The real problem is not that we are not getting enough cycles out of processors: it's that the speed at which data moves from memory to processor and back again has not really increased all that much over the past several years. That's the biggest bottleneck we're facing, and faster processors with more cores doesn't really solve it unless the problem set is completely parallel.

What's the solution? I have no idea ... but people who are much better equipped than I are working on it. All I know is that it is going to need a cool name ... maybe something with "turbo" or "fire" in it. ®

The essential guide to IT transformation

More from The Register

next story
The Return of BSOD: Does ANYONE trust Microsoft patches?
Sysadmins, you're either fighting fires or seen as incompetents now
Microsoft: Azure isn't ready for biz-critical apps … yet
Microsoft will move its own IT to the cloud to avoid $200m server bill
US regulators OK sale of IBM's x86 server biz to Lenovo
Now all that remains is for gov't offices to ban the boxes
Object storage bods Exablox: RAID is dead, baby. RAID is dead
Bring your own disks to its object appliances
Oracle reveals 32-core, 10 BEEELLION-transistor SPARC M7
New chip scales to 1024 cores, 8192 threads 64 TB RAM, at speeds over 3.6GHz
VMware vaporises vCHS hybrid cloud service
AnD yEt mOre cRazy cAps to dEal wIth
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
7 Elements of Radically Simple OS Migration
Avoid the typical headaches of OS migration during your next project by learning about 7 elements of radically simple OS migration.
BYOD's dark side: Data protection
An endpoint data protection solution that adds value to the user and the organization so it can protect itself from data loss as well as leverage corporate data.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?