Smartphones and tablets are demanding more computing power, and chip company Adapteva hopes to bring server-type performance to the devices with a chip it is announcing on Monday.
The Epiphany IV chip packs 64 cores, and can provide 70 gigaflops of performance while consuming one watt of power, said Andreas Olofsson, Adapteva's CEO. A watt may be high for smartphones, but performance and power consumed by the cores can be scaled down to accelerate tasks such as hand-gesture recognition and face recognition, Olofsson said.
The chip cannot host a full OS, and is intended to be a co-processor to take processing load off CPUs. Epiphany IV has a mesh design for faster data exchange, and the parallel cores have been arranged in a square with multiple points of contact to receive and transfer data. Cores can be easily added to scale performance, and the multiple communication points help resolve bandwidth issues.
"We're not trying to take on Intel or ARM, we're trying to sit next to it," Olofsson said.
Adapteva's mobile ambitions follow an initial foray into the supercomputing space, where there has been an interest in using the chip for grid-based tasks such as environmental modeling. The company, which employs five people, already has one licensee, but Olofsson declined to name it.
Low-power and small size
Beyond supercomputing, the Epiphany IV's small size and low-power attributes make it a good co-processor in smartphones and tablets, Olofsson said.
The company hopes to license the chip design to mobile chip makers, and so far the reception has been positive, Olofsson said. The accelerator could fit inside a system-on-chip, which combines the CPU with a number of processors such as graphics and video acceleration units.
"Our goal is to get into the next generation of smartphones and tablets," Olofsson said.
The Epiphany IV is based on a RISC (reduced instruction set computing) design, Olofsson said. The chip's cores consume up to 25 milliwatts of power at peak performance, and the chip for smartphones and tablets can have up to 64 cores. The chip will be made using the 28-nanometer process, and provides an incremental power and performance upgrade over its predecessor, which was made using the 65-nanometer process. The previous chip, which was announced earlier this year, had 16 cores and drew just under 1 watt of power.
The 64-core reference design of Epiphany IV will be available the first quarter of next year, Olofsson said.
Minuscule chip cores
Adapteva's chip is not a general purpose processor, and it differs from other accelerators such as the more power hungry graphics processors, which accelerate certain scientific and math applications, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. Adapteva's chip may also cost less than FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays), which are reprogrammable units designed to execute specific tasks such as XML processing.
"The size of [Epiphany IV] cores is minuscule," Brookwood said. "Even if you have 64 cores, it's still a small chip."
However, Adapteva has more opportunities in high-performance computing as supercomputers are increasingly using accelerators to boost performance, Brookwood said. An Intel Xeon chip with an Epiphany IV chip could potentially outperform a bunch of Xeon processors, Brookwood said.
"If a smartphone needed this level of performance, then this would make some sense. Right now I don't think smartphones need this," Brookwood said.
Olofsson said there may be little interest in Adapteva's chip in data centres, which is dominated by servers running chips based on the x86 architecture. While Epiphany can work alongside Intel or Advanced Micro Devices CPUs, it cannot accelerate legacy applications written for the x86 architecture.
Adapteva will continue to chase the high-performance computing market where supercomputers can take advantage of Epiphany's parallelism, Olofsson said. Adapteva's chip can host applications written using the OpenCL standard, a set of programming tools to develop and manage parallel task execution. With OpenCL, programmers can write code once for deployment across multiple computing environments. Apple, Nvidia, Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are among the many companies backing OpenCL.
The Epiphany IV can scale up to 4,096 cores for a high-performance computer, Olofsson said.
"It's not science fiction, we can do it, but we need a customer to come and ask us to design it," Olofsson said.