Processor introductions make significant software statements.
As much as it might seem a purely hardware event, I always think of
the autumnal chip-head
in San Jose, Calif., as being an important indicator to software
developers as well. The hardware models offered to developers, such as RISC
backfield in the game of crafting productive programming tools. The
evolving trade-off of processor capability versus power consumption,
important signals as to where developers should focus their energies:
on servers, on workstations, on personal systems, or on mobile and
The October event has a long history of yielding significant
statements from a broad range of makers
of both hard chips and soft
intellectual property, such as licensable chip core designs. This year
continues that tradition with announcements such as the one made on Monday by the United Kingdoms ARM Ltd., which unveiled its "Neon"
portfolio of new chips andimportantlycomplementary software
Pardon me if I allow my mind to boggle, briefly, at the idea that
Neon is aimed primarily at wireless and consumer applications. This is
a 64-bit architecture with 128-bit data manipulationswhat
definitely used to qualify as a supercomputer. The architecture is
SIMD (Single Instruction Multiple Data), a form of parallelism thats
been well-known to PC software developers at least since the advent of Intels MMX
eight years ago. With a Pentiums 80-bit floating-point data registers
just hanging around, often doing nothing during integer-intensive
operations such as graphics processing, Intel had the excellent idea of
devising instructions that could work with several
shorter data items
eight 8-bit bytes, for examplepacked into
a single 64-bit "MMX register" carved out of one of those
floating-point slots. A single instruction could perform an operation
on all eight of those items at once: hence, Single Instruction Multiple
MMX could handle as many as eight 64-bit composite items; Neon can
work with as many as sixteen 128-bit items. This progress weakens,
still further, the already loosening connection between processor clock
rate and actual task throughput: A Neon device, by doing so much work
on every instruction cycle, can perform an MP3 audio
at only 10 MHz.
This brings us to software development, which is what these letters
are mostly about. I commented in this space, two weeks ago, that I saw
a shifting equilibrium between the lower cost per unit of a minimally
tailored software platformfor example, a customized variant of
Windows CEand the lower up-front cost and development time of an
all-singing, all-dancing, general-purpose platform such as J2ME (Java 2 Platform, Mobile Edition). I was
rebuked, affably but unmistakably, by developers
who assured me that in the embedded-device space, "small devices are
still the land of hand-crafted code and even operating systems."
One of those developers suggested that "Coffee sees the entire
embedded market revolving around cell phones," which of course is not
the case; I admit without apology that the
newsletter column in question
focused on the
category of devices, this being (I believe) the embedded device class
of greatest current interest to readers.
Im well aware that the submerged part of the software iceberg is an
enormous mass of code thats running, to use one developers example,
programmable thermostats and other such devices on chips that are still
But the people Im mainly addressing here, I believe, are doing more
complex things on more rapid development cycles,
and will therefore
be interested in the high-level C-programming supportincluding a vectorizing
thats part of the Neon portfolio.
The Khronos Groups
family of OpenMAX media-acceleration APIs
will be one of the tool kits available to developers for rapid
exploitation of Neons processing power.
I almost never miss the processor conference in San Jose each fall,
but this year another commitment on the other coast will be keeping me
away: I welcome your e-mail comments on whatever you may see, or
perhaps overhear, as the chips fall with the autumn leaves.
Tell me what I missed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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