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Spring 2011 Vol. 11 Number 1



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The Next Level for
Computer Performance
©Ocean/Corbis

To illustrate the incredible advances in information technology that have occurred over the last several decades, consider that the average modern cell phone can deliver the raw performance of a 1970s supercomputer. In the last 20 years, computing performance has increased on the order of 10,000 times. The expectation that these advances will continue unabated well into the future, popularly referred to as Moore's law, has become engrained in our society. In fact, many sectors of the U.S. economy -- including medicine, defense, entertainment, and communications -- have come to depend upon it.

A report from the National Research Council warns, however, that these rapid advances in information technology could stall unless the nation aggressively pursues fundamental research and development of parallel computing -- hardware and software that enable multiple computing activities to process simultaneously.

Much of the growth in computing performance has been driven by advances in single-processor, sequential computer microprocessors. However, power limitations and other technological constraints have made it impractical to continue improving computer performance in this way much longer, the report says. Parallel computing, therefore, is the only known alternative for improving computer performance without significantly increasing costs and energy usage.

Despite some mainstream successes in parallel computing -- such as the MapReduce programming framework used by Google to process large data sets using thousands of computers -- most parallel computing in use now is limited to comparatively narrow scientific and engineering applications. To enable parallel computing for broader use, new algorithms, programming models, operating systems, and computer architectures will be required, the report says, and research and development in these areas should be pursued. In particular, advances are necessary to develop new parallel programming methods and supporting computing systems. Although computing hardware such as semiconductor chips that contain eight or more microprocessors have already been developed, software that can keep that many or more processors busy in parallel is not available for most computing applications.

Research and development should also focus on making computer systems more energy efficient, the report says. Power constraints now affect systems ranging from handheld devices to the largest computing data centers. Most computer chips are designed with silicon-based complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology. While the number of devices per CMOS chip continues to double every few years, the technology has essentially reached its threshold with regard to power efficiency. Even as new parallel computing models and solutions are found, most future performance will ultimately be limited by power capacity. --  Molly Galvin


The Future of Computing Performance: Game Over or Next Level? Committee on Sustaining Growth in Computer Performance, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2010, 200 pp.; ISBN 0-309-15951-2; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $36.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Samuel H. Fuller, chief technology officer and vice president of research and development for Analog Devices Inc., Norwood, Mass. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.



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Copyright 2011 by the National Academy of Sciences