Catching Up on Intel

The dominance that Intel’s x86 standard is enjoying in the computing market may be in trouble. AMD, ARM, Texas Instruments, and a couple of smaller chip manufacturers have entered a partnership called the Heterogeneous Systems Architecture Foundation (HSAF). HSAF aims to produce a single standardized architecture for low-power computing, while at the same time taking steps to simplify the parallel-programming model used for multicore graphics processors and chips.

How Many Chip Makers Do They Need To Unseat Intel’s x86?

Currently, the HSAF consists of five chip makers united under the common goal of dethroning the x86 standard, with the consortium gaining support from MediaTek (the second largest wireless chip maker), and Imagination Technologies. While HSAF has not yet gained the support of Qualcomm (the largest wireless chip maker) and nVidia, AMD’s director of product marketing John Taylor states that they are reaching out to both companies, especially nVidia, since the consortium is focusing on graphics processing units, which nVidia is currently co-dominating with AMD/ATI.

Why is a GPU-CPU Combo Logical?

The creation of the HSAF is very timely, as the current trend in technology these days has already leaned towards graphics as an essential element of day to day computing – from videos, to photos, and even the growing preference for visual design in sites, GPU is certainly becoming a driving force in everyday computing.

Even back in 2008, PC manufacturers and software makers were starting to shift more and more work to GPUs, ensuring that the need for graphics processing units with decent number crunching capabilities are present even outside of gaming, which used to be the main or even sole purpose of a decent GPU solution.

The shift towards offloading computing tasks to GPUs is because they are inherently more efficient than x86 CPUs when it comes to computing tasks that are related to graphics, which has a number of benefits. With the two main ones being the fact that it leaves the main CPU free to focus on other tasks, and that the GPU being more efficient at graphics-related tasks ensures that work will be finished faster and will consumer less energy.

CPUs – Jack of All Trades, Master of None

The shift in computing is basically just people realizing that the CPU’s generalized approach to tasks actually slows everything down, as its focus on supporting as wide a variety of computing tasks as possible meant that it can’t specialize on a single one. With the emergence of graphics-specialized hardware, people saw that there is no need to use a general purpose CPU when there’s something else in the PC’s components that is better at that task because it specializes in that aspect.

A great example of what HSAF wants to achieve is if Texas Instruments, which is a large-scale manufacturer of Digital Signal Processing chips that are specialized in math operations, teams up with another chip maker to produce a DSP that is combined with a general purpose CPU core to produce a chip that would excel in math processing while retaining a general purpose CPU. AMD is already doing something similar with their Fusion chips, which merge a general purpose CPU with a dedicated high performance GPU in a single die.

HSA in the Real World

While there are already examples of what HSAF wants to achieve, it won’t be until 2014 before we really get to see the full vision of the consortium come to life, as the foundation’s work will hit the streets with AMD’s new line of APUs (accelerated processing units, which are GPU and CPU combos) and HSA-enabled GPU solutions. HSAF is already hard at work and coordinating with application providers such as Adobe and Microsoft in order to help them optimize their programs for the new chips.

What this means to the end user is that they will get the chance to have devices that are more efficient at tasks that they were designed for compared to devices that rely on a general purpose CPU, and that the efficiency yields longer battery lives and lower power consumption on all devices, while sys admins and app developers will be able to take advantage of processors that are extremely good at their specified jobs.

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