ClearSpeed races ahead on processor cores

Doubles speed in latest co-processor for workstations and server clusters

ClearSpeed Technology has doubled the performance of its high-performance computing co-processor for scientific workstations and server clusters by incorporating 96 separate processing cores on a single chip, the company announced Wednesday at the Fall Processor Forum in San Jose, California.

The new CSX600 co-processor runs at 250MHz and can achieve 50G FLOPS (floating point operations per second), a significant improvement over the 200MHz CS301 introduced at last year's Microprocessor Forum. The older chip produced 25G FLOPS of performance when added to workstations or servers through a PCI (peripheral component interconnect) card.

Co-processors are used to relieve the general processors of mathematically intensive tasks that can sap overall system performance. By offloading those tasks to the CSX600, users such as design engineers or genomics researchers can run specialized applications on their personal or workgroup machines instead of fighting with colleagues to schedule server or cluster time.

This performance was made possible by the 96 individual processing units on the CSX600, said Simon McIntosh-Smith, director of architecture at ClearSpeed. Each unit is a VLIW (very long instruction word) processor core that produces a great deal of output without using a lot of power, producing as much as 10G FLOPS per watt, McIntosh-Smith said.

Power consumption is a huge concern for any product that is designed to fit into an existing system or sit alongside a general-purpose processor on a motherboard. ClearSpeed hopes that system designers will start to include the CSX600 in systems designed for the HPC (high-performance computing) market, but the company initially will sell PCI-X (PCI - extended) cards for about $50,000 that contain two CSX600 processors and slide into existing workstations and servers based on the x86 instruction set.

The older PCI-X bus technology can be a bottleneck for overall performance. ClearSpeed chose that bus technology because it is so widely used, McIntosh-Smith said. Intel is trying to popularize a faster technology called PCI Express that should help remove some of those concerns as it appears in more servers and PCs, he said.

Software will need to be ported to take advantage of the co-processor's performance. ClearSpeed has a software development kit available on its Web site (http://www.clearspeed.com) for interested developers.

Orion Multisystems launched in August with a similar goal of bringing massive amounts of computing power to desktop and workstation machines. Orion's workstations use a similar low-power/high-performance approach with system boards composed of multiple Efficeon processors from Transmeta.

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