Chip maker Adapteva aims to speed up smartphones

Adapteva has announced a multicore accelerator that can scale to 16 cores in smartphones and 4,000 cores in servers

Startup chip design company Adapteva on Tuesday announced the multicore Epiphany processor, which is designed to accelerate applications in servers and low-power devices such as smartphones and tablets.

The processor is scalable to thousands of cores on a single chip, and can sit alongside CPUs to provide real-time execution of diverse applications, said Andreas Olofsson, CEO of Adapteva. Epiphany chips are currently scalable up to 64 cores in smartphones and up to 4,000 cores in servers.

Today's smartphone and PC chips come with CPUs for general-purpose processing, and specialized cores -- also called accelerators -- to perform specific functions such as video processing. Instead of being restricted to specific tasks, Adapteva aims to provide a flexible accelerator with multiple cores that can perform a number of functions.

The processor, based on a RISC (reduced instruction set computing) design, has floating point capabilities and is designed to be power efficient. A chip running at 1GHz with 16 cores can consume less than 1 watt of power, Olofsson said.

The processor can accelerate tasks like hand gesture recognition, face matching or face tracking, Olofsson said. Smartphones have limited capabilities for such tasks due to the limited processing power of the chips that fit their low-power profile. The Adapteva processors, however, are designed to execute such applications in a snap while consuming very little power.

The ability to run a number of C programs also separates the chip from graphics processing units (GPUs), which are increasingly being used in supercomputers to process math, science and graphics tasks, Olofsson said. Some GPUs rely on proprietary binary libraries from vendors, he noted.

Adapteva's Epiphany processors, however, can run standard ANSI-C applications "out of the box," Olofsson said. "We provide libraries to help programmers be productive but the programmer doesn't have to use our libraries."

"However, we do not have a memory management unit, so we can not act as a host for operating systems such as standard Linux or Windows," Olofsson said.

The Epiphany processor is not designed to be a full-fledged CPU, and cannot execute programs with millions of lines of code, Olofsson said. A broad instruction set and large memory capabilities are needed to run such applications, which are available on full-fledged CPUs such as x86 processors.

Adapteva hopes to license its chip architecture to smartphone and tablet chip makers, and is also looking at supercomputers, in which the processors can be used to speed up execution of tasks such as weather modeling, logical simulations or medical applications. The company provides the development tools, including a compiler, debugger, run-time libraries and an integrated development environment.

The Epiphany processor is designed for the 65-nanometer manufacturing process, but the company hopes to jump to the 28-nm manufacturing process in the future, which will make the chip more power efficient, Olofsson said. A 1GHz chip made using the 28-nm process with 16 cores will consume 0.25 watts of power, according to the company.

The processor also differs from FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays), which are reprogrammable circuits that can help execute specific tasks such as XML processing. The Epiphany chips are not restricted to running specific tasks, Olofsson said.

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