PC set to morph into personal supercomputer

Multicore chips will change the face of PCs, says Jack Gold

Within the next three to four years, new PC machines will havemorphed into personal supercomputers. This change is set to come with the emergence of multicore CPUs and, perhaps more importantly, the arrival of massively parallel cores in the graphical processing units.

In fact, ATI (a division of Advanced Micro Devices) and Nvidia are already offering multiple programmable cores in their high-end discreet graphics processing platforms. These cores can be programmed to do many parallel processing tasks, resulting in dramatically better display features and functions for video, especially for gaming. But these platforms currently come at a hefty price and often require significant amounts of power, making them impractical in many laptop designs.

However, preliminary steps are being taken to make these high-end multicore and programmable components available to virtually any machine. Vendors are moving to create integrated multicore platforms, with 64 or more specialty cores that can be used in conjunction with the various multicore CPUs now taking hold in the market. Using the most advanced semiconductor processes and geometries (32nm and soon 22nm and beyond), these new classes of devices will achieve incredible processing capability. They will also morph from the primarily graphics-oriented tasks they currently perform, to include a multitude of tasks associated with business and personal productivity.

Many tasks currently relegated to higher-end servers and mainframes will soon be performed on individual PCs, including dramatically improved abilities to extract data from large databases, improved business intelligence calculations, enhanced security capabilities and improved visualisation of all forms of data.

The sheer power of such machines is exemplified by a report that machines, with heavy-duty graphics processors, were connected together and used to break the security of the WPA encryption commonly used to secure wi-fi connections. In another incident, the security certificates associated with secure and trusted web sites were hacked.

The vendor leading the technological drive is Intel, whose advantage in semiconductor technology will allow it to achieve such capabilities tightly integrated with its CPU lines. The Larabee platform that it is engineering will be cost-effective and integrated with Intel's core CPU architectures. AMD will design and produce similar multicore devices, but the company will find it difficult to stay abreast of Intel's chip process lead, at least for the next few years. We expect AMD to offer a more cost-competitive product, similar to its strategy of offering lower-cost CPUs for cost-conscious designs.

We expect the biggest loser in this market change to be Nvidia. While it makes excellent graphics subsystems now, we predict the lack of a fully compatible i86 CPU core to integrate its graphics with will put it in a difficult situation, with the company forced out of all but the highest-end graphics subsystems. We expect this discrete graphics market to represent 5% to 10% of the market. Intel and AMD will dominate the remainder with their integrated platforms, although we expect Intel to take the majority (75% to 85%) of this market.

The bottom line is that, over the next few years, the dramatic expansion of programmable, multicore integrated chips attached to CPUs in desktops and laptops will allow substantial enhancements in data manipulation and presentation. Standard PCs will greatly expand the types and amount of processing available to the individual user. It will take some time for software to catch up with the new hardware, but once it does, we can expect a substantial increase in the personal productivity and data manipulation and presentation capabilities of the average PC user.

Jack Gold is the founder and principal analyst at J.Gold Associates LLC, an IT analyst firm in Northboro, Massachusetts.

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