April 18, 2005

Dual core processors boost systems' performance

Author: Paul Korzeniowski

Users' desire for additional computer speed is never-ending. As soon as vendors implement one technology that offers a quantum leap in processing power, users anxiously await the next. As a result, hardware vendors are now poised to introduce a new microprocessor design: dual core CPUs, which promise to boost the performance of Linux servers, desktop systems, and notebook computers.

Traditionally, the most effective method of boosting computer performance has been improving a microprocessor's clock speed. Essentially as clock speeds increase, chips process more data in set timeframes. Recently, clock increases have become more difficult to deliver: "In focusing on microprocessor clock speed, vendors have found it more and more difficult to solve the problems that come along with it, like the need for additional power and heat leakages," said Kevin Krewell, a senior analyst at market research firm In-Stat/MDR Inc.

Dual core technology offers an alternative to the traditional reliance on clock improvements. With the former, microprocessor engineers place two execution cores -- or computational engines -- on a single chip. The multi-core processor plugs directly into a single processor socket and appears to the Linux operating system like one processor, but since the chip can divvy up the computational work among multiple execution cores, the processor performs more work within a given time period than a single core chip.

A high-end hand-me-down

Like many hardware advances, dual core technology started off in high-end workstations from vendors like IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc., but now microprocessor vendors AMD Inc. and Intel Inc. are poised to drive usage into the mainstream.

"We are seeing use of dual core processing move down from the scientific and engineering area into general purpose computing," noted Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at market research firm Insight 64. Intel plans to add dual core functions to its Pentium desktop microprocessor at the end of the second quarter, and AMD plans to add it to its Opteron server CPUs at the start of the third quarter.

While the benefit of dual core systems have been talked about since the early 1990s, only now have the pieces fallen into a place where suppliers like Intel and AMD can deliver them.

"Recently, circuitry improved so vendors can station a large number of transceivers in a small area," said In-Stat/MDR's Krewell.

In addition to reduced circuitry size, vendors had to overcome power and heat problems. The more powerful a system is, the more power it requires and the more heat it generates. To address these challenges, vendors developed proprietary techniques to supply power, for instance AMD Inc.'s PowerNow technology helps a system minimize power consumption; and cool systems, for example HP's "Whisper Quiet" fans reduce the heat and noise computers generate.

The road to dual core desktops

While microprocessor suppliers are adding dual core technology across their desktop, server, and notebook product lines, they are taking different deployment paths. Intel is focusing first on the desktop and later on the server; AMD is taking the opposite approach.

The desktop has been Intel's stronghold. "Intel has been a mass-market microprocessor supplier, so the best way to push dual core technology into the mainstream is by delivering it on the desktop," said Insight 64's Brookwood.

In addition to processing complex applications faster, multi-core capabilities can help users complete different tasks more effectively. "As a user works in the foreground with an email application, virus protection and security checking software can run in the background without impacting system performance," said Vic Bhagat, product manager at AMD.

But is the desktop the logical place to start out with dual core processing? "Dual core processing is geared to applications that require a lot more processing power," said In-Stat/MDR's Krewell. "My sense is, few desktop users now view system performance as a problem and therefore will [not] be willing to pay more for dual core technology." At least initially, hardware vendors are expected to place a surcharge on their dual core systems, but how much more will not become clear until they announce their systems in the next few months.

Servers work with large traffic loads and seem to be more likely candidates to suffer from performance problems, but vendors have other options to boost performance. "There has been a push in the server area to 2-way and 4-way microprocessor systems, and that has helped vendors eliminate performance issues with certain applications," said Brookwood.

Microprocessor vendors are also pushing down into the laptop area. The dividing lines between desktop and laptop computers have been falling -- so that seems like a logical move -- but dual core technology may not mesh well with laptops. Laptop vendors have been struggling to implement batteries that operate for more than a few hours, and heat dissipation is also a challenge. "If you put your laptop on your lap, it will quickly become quite warm," said Kim Stephenson, vice president at EDS. "Putting more sophisticated processors in these systems will only make them hotter."

From the server to the desktop and back again

As dual core systems make their way into the mainstream, enterprises may benefit in a couple of ways. As mentioned, more processing power means servers will be better able to complete complex computational applications faster. As a result, corporations may find it easier to justify deployment of complex applications, such as engineering and multimedia programming.

A few steps have to be taken before users realize these benefits. "To take advantage of dual core technology, applications and operating systems have to be rewritten so the different processors complete small portions of the required tasks," noted Insight 64's Brookwood.

Threading -- a method of allowing applications to handle multiple processes at one time -- has long been included in the Linux kernel. In the workstation and supercomputing markets, independent software vendors (ISVs) have also added matching functionality in their products so that they can support computers that have multiple CPUs. These applications can take advantage of the multithreading capabilities offered by multi-processing servers, so they should be able to port their applications to the new dual core systems quickly, assuming any code changes have to be made at all.

An optimistic appraisal

As these applications make their way to the market, more users may move to dual core systems. While AMD and Intel plan to add dual core features to the bulk of their microprocessors by the end of 2006, observers are split on the new technology's immediate impact. By the end of 2006, Intel expects that more than 85% of its server processors and more than 70% of its mobile and desktop processor shipments will feature two CPU cores on one die.

Others are not as optimistic. "Desktop systems are a mature technology, one where users gradually migrate to new technologies. So in a year, at most a third of their desktop systems will have dual core processors," said EDS's Stephenson.

As dual core processing works its way into the enterprise, users can be on the lookout for the next speed enhancement. "In the server space, we've seen vendors move from one processor to two processors and then to four processor systems," concluded Insight 64's Brookwood. "As vendors become comfortable with dual core technology, I expect them to follow a similar path and deliver four core and eight core processors."

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