High Performance & Energy Efficient Computing

In the history of computation, electrical power consumption has been on the bottom of the stack in the marketing campaign of Intel, AMD, IBM, and other semiconductor chip fabricators. We’ve all heard about the MHz and GHz wars between Pentium, Athlon, PowerPC, Itanium, and Opteron computer processors. Over the last decade the performance of microprocessors has gone up many fold, usually exceeding Moore’s Law, and likewise following Rock’s Law.

The marketplace of ideas contracted as processor companies folded, or merged. Today we have three major high performance high volume microprocessor manufacturers, and a new era of computing at each. IBM uses the Power Architecture, Intel has the Xeon line, and AMD has the Opteron line of 64-bit (sometimes called x64) dual-core chips. Several factors facilitated the move to multi-core, but the greatest achievement was the move from 130 nm production to the 90 nm process.

Working in such a small production environment allows multiple processors on a single die, which essentially permits nearly double the performance on a dual processor configuration. In the future expect more than two cores on a die, but at the electrical power expense of a single core. In 2006, chip vendors hope to move to 65 nm processes, that will allow even more cores onto the same space as the older 130 and 90 nm designs.

This describes the break from the GHz run-up, instead of a single 10 GHz chip, produce quad-core 2.5 GHz chips with equal or better performance, and at at least a quarter of the electrical requirements. Today, Xeon processors take 110 W per core, Opteron 90 W per core, and PowerPC 55 W per core. A new metric is being developed called performance per watt, and multiple system integrators are working on the problem with next generation chips.

Sun Microsystems is first out with a low power dual-core dual-processor system, the 1U Sun Fire X4100 Server, which also reduces power consumption by using SAS 2.5 inch hard drives. Anticipate other vendors like Dell, IBM, and even Apple Computer to explore energy efficient designs to reduce electrical consumption from carbon combustion fuel generating stations.

In the coming months Apple will most likely release a dual-core Xserve G5, along with a future Intel based Xserve. Apple currenty ships a dual-core Power Mac G5 Dual workstation and soon to release the quad-core Power Mac G5 Quad.

IBM power microprocessor
IBM power microprocessor