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Processor Watch

Intel Shows MIC Progress

July 18, 2011

Author: Tom R. Halfhill

Intel has demonstrated early hardware and software developed for its evolving manycore processors, which aim to expand the x86 architecture’s dominance in supercomputers and high-performance computing (HPC). At the recent International Supercomputing Conference in Germany, Intel demonstrated software developed by partners using a Many Integrated Core (MIC, pronounced “mike”) processor salvaged from the ill-fated Larrabee GPU project. Those partners include CERN (Switzerland), the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Information, and the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (Germany). Additional partners—Colfax, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, SGI, and Supermicro—showed prototype MIC servers and workstations.

The development processor, code-named Aubrey Isle, has 32 CPU cores. When the first commercial MIC processor enters production, it will have at least 50 CPUs. Most customers will buy it as a math coprocessor on a PCI Express board, which is code-named Knights Corner. Intel still hasn’t announced a delivery date for Knights Corner but says the MIC processor will debut in the company’s new 22nm technology, which is scheduled to begin production later this year and ramp quickly in 2012. (Some press reports concluded that Knights Corner will ship in 2012, which Intel won’t confirm or deny.)

Aubrey Isle is mounted a PCIe board called Knights Ferry, the forerunner of Knights Corner. Intel’s Larrabee team originally designed this highly parallel (128-thread) processor to compete with GPUs from AMD and Nvidia. But the Larrabee microarchitecture was also intended for general-purpose computation. When Intel realized that Aubrey Isle was uncompetitive for consumer graphics, the company abandoned its GPU ambitions and recycled the samples as an HPC development platform (Knights Ferry). The future Knights Corner processor will be similar to Aubrey Isle and will be software compatible, although recompilation may be necessary for optimal performance.

Intel wants to enable customers to build supercomputers that by 2017 will deliver one exaflops (more than 100 times today’s best performance) while using “only” 20kW. That is about twice as much power as today’s biggest computers use. Although the x86 architecture currently dominates the supercomputer field—77% of the world’s top 500 machines use Intel processors—competition from GPUs adapted for general-purpose processing is growing. Nvidia’s Tesla GPUs are now the main processors in 12 of the top 500 systems, including 3 of the top 5. The MIC project shows that Intel is willing to devote significant resources to retaining its leadership position in this relatively small but prestigious market.