The Astonishing Achievements Of Architecture

These days we’re becoming familiar with new special purpose microprocessor architectures like Google’s 45TFlops TPU2 and Nvidia’s 5,000 core Volta GPU but, 11 years ago, the world seemed stuck.

“There really is a technology issue now,” Transputer architect David May told me in 2006, “there’ve been no fundamental architectural enhancements for a long time. Some of this stuff just isn’t right, we still have x86s and RISCs. They are 30 years old, and they were never designed to be applied to what we’re applying them to today, to things like media processing, cryptography, and 3-D graphics.”

These, of course, were general purpose architectures and their performance has been constrained by thermal limits.

“If you look at what you’d design from scratch from today (2006) to run big servers it ain’t one of those,” added May, “and if you look at the other side, the client side, what you’d design for that ain’t one of those either.”

Although the world has turned to multi-core for the answer, the problem is that, although well-understood for special purpose uses, multi-cores are a nightmare when it comes to general purpose uses.

“Inevitably there are going to be problems with multi-cores”, said May, “ the thing causing the most difficulty is that the core runs fast and the memory doesn’t. When you try and put multiple cores on a chip sharing the memory, you have problems, because the memory is already running flat out.”

Nowadays extraordinary performance is being squeezed out of  special purpose processors and it’s not all down to Moore’s Law.



  1. I’m sure you’re right, Jamo, Moore’s Law made everyone complacent

  2. Maybe it was Moore’s Law – less pressure to fundamentally change. Nice Segway into one main difference between analog and digital circuits.

  3. SecretEuroPatentAgentMan

    My impression is that architectural progress here has been in cache and bus architecture, not instruction set architecture with the exception of specialised processors GPUs and TPUs. The general purpose ISAs are still very old.

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