The $99 Supercomputer

11/28/2012 12:51:07 AM

You may not have heard of Adapteva, but the company makes some bold claims about its potential to revolutionise the mobile market. According to the company’s self-promotional activities, it’s developed world’s most efficient multi-core processor architecture. That may sound like vapourware, but Adapteva has already released products, including a 16-core chip based on a 65mm production process and an impressive 64 core 28nm chip.

Description: The tiny Epiphany cores are assembled in a gird-like fashion to create a many-core, low-power processor

The tiny Epiphany cores are assembled in a gird-like fashion to create a many-core, low-power processor

Not content with selling a few chips, however, the company has revealed plans for an ultra-compact microcomputer such as the Raspberry Pi, but offering a claimed 50GHz of CPU-equivalent processing power. Better still, it plans to sell the board to enthusiasts for just $99, and has turned to crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to see its dreams become reality.

Bare bones supercomputing

The Parallella board envisioned by Adapteva’s chief executive Andreas Olofsson and his team is certainly impressive. With a dual-core Zynq ARM Cortex-A9 processor running at 1GHz, 1GB of RAM and gigabit Ethernet, there’s plenty of power for general-purpose computing, while a pair of 48-in general-purpose input-output (GPIO) headers provides support for talking to external hardware.

Inevitably, the board draws comparisons to the ARM-based Raspberry Pi. ‘There are lots of cheap platforms out there running dual-core A9s, so that’s not the reason people are going to buy our platform,’ Olofsson admitted. ‘People are going to be excited about our platform because of the openness and the parallel computing. The platform itself is going to have a dual-core Cortex-A9 on it, initially running Ubuntu.’ This is a respectable basic computer in itself, but the really big deal is that it also has Adapteva’s co-processor – the Epiphany.

This highly parallel, power-efficient chip can be quickly programmed in C or C++ and, offering 16 cores on the $99 version of the board and 64 on the $199 version, it promises the level of parallel-processing performance normally associated with desktop graphics cards. ‘We don’t run an operating system, but we’ve really good at real-time processing, maths acceleration and the kind of thing that the ARM and Intel processors can’t handle today very energy-efficiently. It has 64-cores running at 800NHz, consuming less than 2W for the full-chip. That’s around 50GHz of CPU performance; this is the way we like to count it, because it’s 64 real RISC [Reduced Instruction Set Computing] cores that can run a lot of different applications.’

While multiplying the number of cores by the clock speed to reach a high figure is perhaps questionable, Adapteva has another metric to trot out in these scenarios: the latest Epiphany-IV architecture boasts performance of 70 gigaflops per watt. It’s hard to compare this to anything else at the moment, as high-end graphics cards are clearly set up very differently from the Adapteva board, but a top-end Nvidia Kepler GPU can manage around 20 gigaflops per watt.

Description: The company’s first 28nm part, the Epiphany-IV, packs 64 cores into just 10mm2 of sillicon

The company’s first 28nm part, the Epiphany-IV, packs 64 cores into just 10mm2 of sillicon

The community problem

So if the Epiphany architecture is so impressive, why aren’t we already using it? Olofsson readily admits that uptake of the chip has been slow outside niche markets. ‘A processor architecture is only as strong as its community,’ he explains. ‘If you can’t get a few thousand users involved in your architecture to build software and infrastructure, you’re going to have a very hard time surviving, especially with parallel computing, where you’re up against the old way of doing things, the single-threaded way.’

That’s where Parallella comes in. ‘We feel we have technology that’s very compelling from an energy-efficiency standpoint, but if we really want to have long-term success, we need to grow our community very quickly. It can be very hard to do that if we keep  the price high. Until today, our kits have cost thousands of dollars and we’ve had hundreds of people interested in our technology, but they couldn’t afford it. We feel that if we can price it at $99 for a parallel computer, it should be cheap enough for anybody to have it.

‘For me, personally, the reason I’m an engineer is to build stuff that other people use,’ Olofsson adds. ‘That’s the dream of a chip designer: you build a platform – a blank canvas – and then other people will make amazing things with that.’

Open source

Olofsson has also solemnly promised to ensure that technical documentation, complier source code and so forth are available publicly under a permissive open-source licence – something that’s relatively race in the semiconductor world, where companies such as AMD, Intel, Nvidia and Broadcom keep their details locked under onerous non-disclosure agreements.

‘It only hurts the end-user community to close the platforms and keep it secret,’ Olofsson claims. ‘Some companies do that because it’s very competitive, right? It’s a dogfight between different chip companies to eke out a profit, but it doesn’t help the end user.

‘If you look at companies that traditionally have a very broad horizontal following with lots of markets – companies such as Altera, Xilinx, Texas Instruments, and to some extent, Analog Devices – they’re selling to lots of small customers, and they’ve done very well with that. The applications that have come out of that are very innovative: Beagleboard, Pandaboard and Arduino are examples of platforms with very big followings. I would urge an semiconductor company to open up their platform as much as possible.’

Parallel education

‘Everybody knows that the future’s parallel,’ Olofsson enthuses. ‘What GPUs are showing, and what we’re showing, is that parallel isn’t even the future – it’s now. There are massively parallel systems right now that could give a huge boost to applications, but there’s nobody with the energy and knowledge to re-write a lot of applications for it. In the future, it’s just going to get worse. Single-threaded processors are saturating, and I think there’s agreement on that, so you need to go to heterogeneous computing, and to do that, you need to educate all the new programmers who come out from scratch.’

With a $99 board, Olofsson argues that it will be considerably easier for schools and universities to teach many-core processing concepts, bridging what he claims is a significant skills gap in the industry.

Funding parallella

Kickstarter, or at the very least, the concept of crowd funding, is key to Parallela’s potential. ‘To get the costs down to a reasonable point, we need to increase the volume,’ admits Olofsson. ‘We’ve never going to get the volume up selling onesies and twosies to R&D labs. We need a larger audience. One of our biggest development costs are mask sets; at 28nm, they cost millions of dollars, at 65nm they’re hundreds of thousands of dollars, and if we can get some pre-purchases through Kickstarter, we can use those pre-purchases to basicablly buy mask sets and bring the cost of the chip down to something very attractive.’

Once the upfront costs are dealt with, Olofsson claims that the Epiphany co-processors found on the Parallella boards will be very cheap to manufacture. ‘We’re extremely small in terms of out chip size. Our 64-core processor, at 28nm, is only 10mm2 – around 3.5 x 3.5mm. Compare that to large GPUs and large microprocessors; they’re hundreds of square millimetres just think what they sell for or costs to manufacture. The majority of the cost of a chip is the silicon, so this is very cost-competitive.’

Success in sight

‘Our big goal is for this to be as successful as the Raspberry Pi,’ claims Olofsson, ‘but addressing a different market, obviously. We’re not at $35 or $25, we’ve at $99, but with vastly more performance.’

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