UMass Lowell and University of Glasgow Researchers Squeeze More Than 1,000 Cores Onto Computer Chip

12/13/2010
By For more information, contact media@uml.edu or 978-934-3224

LOWELL, Mass. - Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the University of Glasgow have created an ultra-fast 1,000-core computer processor. By contrast, today’s commonly used computers have up to only 16 “cores,” which read and execute instructions for the computer’s Central Processing Unit (CPU).

UMass Lowell Electrical and Computer Engineering Prof. Martin Margala and colleagues at the University of Glasgow, led by Dr. Wim Vanderbauwhede, have created the processor, which effectively contains more than a thousand cores on a single chip.

To do this, the scientists used a chip called a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) which, like all microchips, contains millions of transistors - the tiny on-off switches which are the foundation of any electronic circuit.

FPGAs can be configured into specific circuits by the user, rather than their function being set at a factory, which enabled the scientists to divide up the transistors within the chip into small groups and ask each to perform a different task.

By creating more than 1,000 mini-circuits within the FPGA chip, the researchers effectively turned the chip into a 1,000-core processor, each core working on its own instructions.
The researchers then used the chip to process an algorithm which is central to the MPEG movie format (used in, for example, YouTube videos) at a speed of five gigabytes per second -- around 20 times faster than current top-end desktop computers.

“FPGAs are not used within standard computers because they are fairly difficult to program, but their processing power is huge while their energy consumption is very small because they are so much quicker - so they are also a greener option,” said Vanderwaubede.

While most computers sold today now contain more than one processing core, which allows them to carry out different processes simultaneously, traditional multi-core processors must share access to one memory source, which slows the system down.

“This research could result in speedier computations than are possible today,” said Margala
The scientists in this research were able to make the processor faster by giving each core a certain amount of dedicated memory. This is based on a new hardware platform called Mora, developed previously by Margala’s group.

“This is very early proof-of-concept work where we're trying to demonstrate a convenient way to program FPGAs so that their potential to provide very fast processing power could be used much more widely in future computing and electronics,” said Vanderwaubede.
While many existing technologies currently make use of FPGAs, including plasma and LCD televisions and computer network routers, their use in standard desktop computers is limited.

“However, we are already seeing some microchips which combine traditional CPUs with FPGA chips being announced by developers, including Intel and ARM,” Venderwaubede added.

“We believe these kinds of processors will only become more common and help to speed up computers even further over the next few years.”

UMass Lowell, with a national reputation in science, engineering and technology, is committed to educating students for lifelong success in a diverse world and conducting research and outreach activities that sustain the economic, environmental and social health of the region. The university offers its 14,000 students more than 120 degree choices, internships, five-year combined bachelor’s to master’s programs and doctoral studies in the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Management, the School of Health and Environment, and the Graduate School of Education. www.uml.edu.

For more information, contact Martin Margala, PhD: 978-934-2986