Intel Unveils 48-Core Single-Chip Cloud Computer

Earlier today in a San Francisco press briefing Intel Chief Technology Officer, Justin Rattner took the wraps off a proof of concept and experimental product that Intel dubbed a "Single-Chip Cloud Computer". The objective this chip was designed to address is the huge opportunity that exists to reduce power consumption and space in the data center, a very real place, rather than mythical, where "the cloud" really exists and increasing user demand for online services continues to chew up bandwidth, processing resources and storage like there is no tomorrow.

The Intel Single-chip Cloud Computer or "SCC" for short, is what Intel likes to call a "many core" CPU but actually consists of a 48-core implementation using 45nm process technology. The cores on the chip are networked together in a packet-based router mesh network, where the nodes (or individual cores) behave quite similarly to a network cloud but on a monolithic silicon chip level. There are, in fact, 24 "routers" to connect and manage all 48 cores and the chip also contains an additional 4 DDR3 memory controllers to feed the network data, with 64GB total addressable memory space per SCC chip.

Intel has produced a short video that talks to some of the experimental chip's features and capabilities and potential uses in the market. The chip was designed as part of Intel's Tera-Scale research initiative as a concept vehicle for highly threaded software research. Essentially, the single-chip was designed to resemble a cluster of compute nodes which can communicate with another compute node using packet-based network technology.


Despite the 48-core chip's relatively complexity, Intel was able to get the processor's power envelope into the 25 - 125w range, depending on the workload and number of active cores. The cores are arranged in such a way that individual clusters, or islands as Intel calls them, can operate at different frequencies and voltage levels. There are 24 tiles on the chip consisting of dual execution cores, each with its own L2 cache.


The cache on the chip, however, features new data sharing options that removes hardware cache coherency. The cores on the chips can still share information, but that data will be broadcast across the chip's 2D mesh network, which offers an impressive 256GB/s of bandwidth, and managed by each tile's message buffer.


The SCC is still an experimental processor, as such, no official product plans have been announced. This type of chip, however, obviously isn't geared for desktop use--at least not with current software models. It is targeted at HPC or highly parallel workloads that will show a benefit when executed on many cores. To put things into better perspective, basically programs that will run well on a many-core GPU, will likely benefit from a design like this as well.

Some additional details are available in the official Intel release, which we've got posted below...

Futuristic Intel Chip Could Reshape How Computers are Built, Consumers Interact with Their PCs and Personal Devices

  • Concept chip from Intel Labs is aimed at scaling on-chip performance, communication and power consumption for decades to come.
  • Contains the most Intel Architecture (IA) computing engines integrated on a silicon CPU chip – 48 cores -- while consuming only as much electricity as two standard household light bulbs.
  • Processors could become smart enough to let PCs use "vision" to interact with people.

SANTA CLARA, Calif., Dec. 2, 2009 – Researchers from Intel Labs demonstrated an experimental, 48-core Intel processor, or "single-chip cloud computer," that rethinks many of the approaches used in today's designs for laptops, PCs and servers. This futuristic chip boasts about 10 to 20 times the processing engines inside today's most popular Intel Core-branded processors.

The long-term research goal is to add incredible scaling features to future computers that spur entirely new software applications and human-machine interfaces. The company plans to engage industry and academia next year by sharing 100 or more of these experimental chips for hands-on research in developing new software applications and programming models.

While Intel will integrate key features in a new line of Core-branded chips early next year and introduce six- and eight-core processors later in 2010, this prototype contains 48 fully programmable Intel processing cores, the most ever on a single silicon chip. It also includes a high-speed on-chip network for sharing information along with newly invented power management techniques that allow all 48 cores to operate extremely energy efficiently at as little as 25 watts, or at 125 watts when running at maximum performance (about as much as today's Intel processors and just two standard household light bulbs).

Intel plans to gain a better understanding of how to schedule and coordinate the many cores of this experimental chip for its future mainstream chips. For example, future laptops with processing capability of this magnitude could have "vision" in the same way a human can see objects and motion as it happens and with high accuracy.

Imagine, for example, someday interacting with a computer for a virtual dance lesson or on-line shopping that uses a future laptop's 3-D camera and display to show you a "mirror" of yourself wearing the clothes you are interested in. Twirl and turn and watch how the fabric drapes and how the color complements your skin tone.

This kind of interaction could eliminate the need of keyboards, remote controls or joysticks for gaming. Some researchers believe computers may even be able to read brain waves, so simply thinking about a command, such as dictating words, would happen without speaking.

Intel Labs has nicknamed this test chip a "single-chip cloud computer" because it resembles the organization of datacenters used to create a "cloud" of computing resources over the Internet, a notion of delivering such services as online banking, social networking and online stores to millions of users.

Intel's 48-Core Single-Chip Cloud Computer Die

Cloud datacenters are comprised of tens to thousands of computers connected by a physically cabled network, distributing large tasks and massive datasets in parallel. Intel's new experimental research chip uses a similar approach, yet all the computers and networks are integrated on a single piece of Intel 45nm, high-k metal-gate silicon about the size of a postage stamp, dramatically reducing the amount of physical computers needed to create a cloud datacenter.

"With a chip like this, you could imagine a cloud datacenter of the future which will be an order of magnitude more energy efficient than what exists today, saving significant resources on space and power costs," said Justin Rattner, head of Intel Labs and Intel's Chief Technology Officer. "Over time, I expect these advanced concepts to find their way into mainstream devices, just as advanced automotive technology such as electronic engine control, air bags and anti-lock braking eventually found their way into all cars."

Cores Allow Software to Intelligently Direct Data for Efficiency
The concept chip features a high-speed network between cores to efficiently share information and data. This technique gives significant improvement in communication performance and energy efficiency over today's datacenter model, since data packets only have to move millimeters on chip instead of tens of meters to another computer system.

Application software can use this network to quickly pass information directly between cooperating cores in a matter of a few microseconds, reducing the need to access data in slower off-chip system memory. Applications can also dynamically manage exactly which cores are to be used for a given task at a given time, matching the performance and energy needs to the demands of each.

Related tasks can be executed on nearby cores, even passing results directly from one to the next as in an assembly line to maximize overall performance. In addition, this software control is extended with the ability to manage voltage and clock speed. Cores can be turned on and off or change their performance levels, continuously adapting to use the minimum energy needed at a given moment.

Overcoming Software Challenges
Programming processors with multiple cores is a well-known challenge for the industry as computer and software makers move toward many-cores on a single silicon chip. The prototype allows popular and efficient parallel programming approaches used in cloud datacenter software to be applied on the chip. Researchers from Intel, HP and Yahoo's Open Cirrus collaboration have already begun porting cloud applications to this 48 IA core chip using Hadoop, a Java software framework supporting data-intensive, distributed applications as demonstrated by Rattner today.

Intel plans to build 100 or more experimental chips for use by dozens of industrial and academic research collaborators around the world with the goal of developing new software applications and programming models for future many-core processors.

"Microsoft is partnering with Intel to explore new hardware and software architectures supporting next-generation client plus cloud applications," said Dan Reed, Microsoft's corporate vice president of Extreme Computing. "Our early research with the single chip cloud computer prototype has already identified many opportunities in intelligent resource management, system software design, programming models and tools, and future application scenarios."

This milestone represents the latest achievement from Intel's Tera-scale Computing Research Program, aimed at breaking barriers to scaling future chips to 10s-100s of cores. It was co-created by Intel Labs at its Bangalore (India), Braunschweig (Germany) and Hillsboro, Ore. (U.S.) research centers. Details on the chip's architecture and circuits are scheduled to be published in a paper at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in February.