Industry consortium to tackle open spec for software use across multicore devices

ARM, AMD are among the companies in the new HSA Foundation, which aims to make programming for multicore devices easy and portable

Companies including Advanced Micro Devices and ARM have formed a consortium to provide an open specification for software to be written and deployed in a cost-effective manner across multiple hardware configurations, it was announced Tuesday.

The Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) Foundation will provide an open hardware interface specification under which program execution can be easily offloaded to other processing resources available in servers, PCs and mobile devices. The new specification will lead to applications that are portable across architectures, while also enabling workloads to be broken up between CPUs and graphics processors for faster and more power efficient computing.

Computers and mobile devices are combining CPUs with a larger number of co-processors to speed up computing tasks. Many of the fastest supercomputers today use graphics processors alongside CPUs to speed up complex calculations related to science and math applications. Mobile devices have accelerators that speed up graphics and security applications.

Other companies in the HSA Foundation are Texas Instruments, which develops chips for smartphones, Imagination Technologies, which develops graphics technology used in smartphones and tablets and MediaTek, which provides mobile chips. Some of the notable companies missing include Intel, which competes with AMD and ARM in the server, mobile and PC markets.

AMD and ARM offer processors based on different instruction sets, but the specifications provided by the HSA will be hardware agnostic, said AMD spokesman Phil Hughes.

For one, the new specification will enhance OpenCL, a programming standard for parallel execution of tasks across multicore processors. The OpenCL standard includes a C-like programming language with APIs (application programming interfaces) for parallel task execution across hardware including CPUs and GPUs. OpenCL backers include Apple, IBM, Intel, Nvidia and AMD.

"HSA benefits OpenCL by removing memory copies, bringing low-latency dispatch, and helping improve memory model and pointers shared between the CPU and GPU," Hughes said.

Software is usually written specific to a device, and the HSA Foundation is an effort to abstract the hardware layer so software can work across the multiple devices and cores, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

For example, smartphones have customized versions of Android, but a standardized specification could provide the groundwork to abstract the hardware, which could enable Android builds to work across different devices.

"It looks to me like they are laying down some of the infrastructure to enable some portability," McCarron said. "If you established what amounts to a standard API for cores, that interaction can be abstracted."

ARM and x86 CPUs differ in the way they interact with media, security or graphics cores, McCarron said. HSA Foundation's specification could release the worry about software design and potentially help chip makers sell more cores, McCarron said.

The HSA Foundation is led by AMD, which in February announced an HSA strategy to bring software development tools so coders can write portable applications for multicore chips. AMD that month also fundamentally changed the way it develops chips, allowing for the integration of third-party intellectual property so customized chips can be designed to specific customer needs.

AMD is partnering with companies like ARM and Texas Instruments, which have a lot of intellectual property, McCarron said. There's nothing that precludes Intel from joining HSA Foundation, but Intel wants to differentiate with its intellectual property, McCarron said. Intel can also afford to go alone as it controls manufacturing of chips and has its own embedded software development team.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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