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Raise High the Roof Beam, Developers

Making single cores do multicore things

By Cameron Bird, Executive Editor

Imagine a house with 12 spacious rooms, 11 of which are locked from the inside. Now, imagine four tenants cramped behind the only open door, trying to wax productive. That's roughly the position legacy software is finding itself in the mansion of multi-core architecture. Give the expansion of dual, quad, hex and even dozen-core systems, the unlocking of un- and underutilized processors remains one of the greatest imperatives in embedded computing. Embedded Intel® Solutions spoke recently to Todd Shaner, business development manager at ITOX Applied Computing, about the ways developers are currently unlocking the idle potential of all that extra real estate.

EIS: How are developers retrofitting single-core architectures to accomplish multicore tasks?

Shaner: Intel has already done a few things to help. They've added the ability to throttle individual, dual and quad core, if something prevents more than one or two cores from being utilized. Developers and users can now overclock such cores to run at higher speeds, so that even though they may have a program that can't fully take advantage multi-threading, multi-core architecture, they'll see a performance improvement. Intel has basically made clear that for applications not written for multicore, this boost won't lead to any thermal issues. The thermal design power won't be exceeded and yet the application will get a boost. That's already in place, but if you're looking at an intensive application that does a lot of processing, say 3D imaging – MRIs, CAT scans, or anything else that requires a lot of data transfer – then it's really imperative that you come up with a solution that can utilize both or all of those cores. The technology has a ways to go; it's a definite weak spot. You have the hardware, but if the software can't utilize the hardware, it's useless.

EIS: What about on the end-user side? What are some realtime workarounds?

Shaner: Well, as a semi-professional digital photographer, I work with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which will currently only use two cores. Adobe's pretty sharp, but they haven't written it to use a quad-core processor. Currently, you have to use workarounds – say you're exporting 100 files that you've done some work on, to send off for printing or to a publisher. Basically, to navigate through the limitation, you can export 50, then you start a second TK for the second 50, and run them in parallel. By doing that, they then utilize all four cores. There are little tricks to take an existing application to better utilize the hardware. Again, customers have to take that into consideration and realize that this is the only current way to get that performance boost.

EIS: What are some other features and applications still waiting to be unlocked?

Shaner: Most of the newest current platforms support triple- independent (video) displays, and Intel is working on new embedded graphics drivers – 10.3.1 – to accommodate that. Right now, users can use a PCIE graphics adaptor for that third display, or put a solution down on board. We, and other vendors, have products with graphics adapter chips placed right on the board, which play directly off the PCI Express bus.

EIS: All the while, there seems to be a growing demand for triple and even quadruple-independent display systems.

Shaner: Yes, especially in healthcare, for patient monitoring, where a nurse or doctor requires an array of displays for diagnostics. In many cases, that third display may be a mere clone of the second or first. But limitations with driver support, BIOS support and so forth currently make this kind of setup difficult to support. Intel's aware of this and is working on a solution.

Cameron Bird is editor of Extension Media’s EECatalog. com. He has written about technology for Wired magazine, daily news for the Orange County Register and entertainment for Newsday.