Adapteva's 1,024-core Epiphany V mega-chip packs serious wallop

Adapteva takes core wars between chips to new heights

Back in 2010, an Intel researcher said 1,000-core processors would be feasible. We're in that era, and the race to make chips faster and more power efficient is gaining steam.

The latest mega-chip is a 1,024-core processor called Epiphany V, which was announced by Adapteva on Wednesday. Adapteva claims it will have enough juice to outperform some of the latest gaming and server processors.

It has a mere 24 more cores than the 1,000-core KiloCore, a test chip made by researchers at University of California, Davis. The Epiphany V and KiloCore cram a mind-numbing number of power-efficient cores into small chips.

The Epiphany V chip isn't designed for gaming -- it's aimed more at real-time image processing, autonomous driving, and machine learning, said Andreas Olofsson, founder of Adapteva.

A hardware enthusiast could build a Linux PC with it, though the chip isn't really designed for PC-type use, Olofsson said.

Companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are building mega data centers to handle a growing number of social media and cloud applications. These servers also handle image recognition and natural language processing.

The servers are coming under more stress with the growing influx of data. Olofsson argues the Epiphany V will deliver more performance per watt and square millimeter than x86 chips. That performance will help smaller servers do more.

The Epiphany V is based on the RISC architecture, which is different than the x86. The chip is now being manufactured, and it could be tested in computers in the coming months. Availability of the chips could be announced next year.

The chip is being fabricated using the 16-nm FinFET process by TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.). TSMC is using the same process to make Nvidia's latest graphics chips.

The 1,024-core chip will not be available off the shelf, but Adapteva will work with partners to commercialize the chip, Olofsson said. That process, in itself, could be a challenge considering a lot of time is required to test and validate chips. 

Development of the chip was funded by U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which played a big role in the development of technologies like GPS and the internet. DARPA has also funded wild ideas that never came to fruition, but Epiphany V looks like it will eventually be available in servers or boards.

The Epiphany V is a milestone in the number of cores that be put on CPUs. Adding cores became a trend when AMD showed the first dual-core x86 chip in 2004. However, one of the first multicore chips was a Power4 processor from IBM in 2001.

Putting more cores was an alternative to cranking up the clock speed of CPUs, which caused chips to draw more power.

But along with more cores came the challenge of making programs work in parallel. Programming frameworks like OpenCL, which is supported by Epiphany V, have helped write code that harnesses the joint computing power of many cores.

The Epiphany V design makes it easy to run applications in parallel. It has a mesh topology, and cores are networked to facilitate communications.

It has shared memory accessible to all cores. The topography ensures there is cache coherency, which is important in chips loaded with cores and memory. The shared memory support can expand to more Epiphany chips.

The mesh topology, with cores communicating via mini-routers, has been used in research and commercial chips before, but Epiphany V has a different design.

Some key details, like overall power consumption, aren't yet known. The power efficiency of the chips determines motherboard and server design, and also the effective performance per watt of the chip. For example, the 1,000-core KiloCore is so power-efficient that it can run on a single AA battery, the UC Davis researchers claimed.

Adapteva has released Epiphany chips previously, and also shipped the US $99 Parallella board computer with a previous Epiphany chip. The company turned to Kickstarter for funding to develop the board and shipped more than 10,000 units. Olofsson didn't detail how he'd commercialize the new Epiphany V chip.

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