How DreamWorks Puts Multicore Chips to Work


You wouldn’t think that next year’s DreamWorks movie, “Aliens vs. Monsters” and the search for more crude would be connected, but they are — in that they both take advantage of parallel programming for multicore chips. And when it comes to multicore chips, big bucks are on the line as the chip firm or software company that figures out how to write code to take advantage of them stands to make boatloads of money.

DreamWorks signed a deal with Intel this week aimed at parallelizing some of its code running on multicore chips to enable 3-D imaging for the 2009 animated movie. It’s not the first company to work with Intel to get more out of the multiple cores now embedded in servers, but it’s a nice example of how Intel is pushing its multicore efforts beyond simply throwing a bunch of chips at a computing bottleneck.

Like other chip firms, Intel knows that to keep compute power on the rise (and customers happy) it has to not only make the hardware more powerful with multicore chips, but also teach programmers how to use them. Otherwise, multicore chips don’t reach their full potential. James Reinders, director of marketing for Intel’s developer products division, pointed out that much of the work Intel was doing with regard to multicore, including investing in software research, selling tools to make parallel programming less cumbersome and participating in standards bodies, was done to deliver more computing power — something that can no longer be done efficiently by increasing clock speeds or adding even more cores.

“Every generation of hardware offers new capabilities, and we have rewritten our software to take advantage of it over time,” Reinders said. “Multicore will inspire us to do the same thing, but it won’t be overnight.”

It’s possible that the chip companies will be the vanguards of a new style of programming, much like programmers had to learn how to program for the web, graphical user interfaces or even e-commerce applications. Paula Richards, director of IBM’s Cell systems business thinks so. The Cell processor, designed for the Playstation 3, contains nine cores and also performs better if you adapt the code to take advantage of it.

So far IBM has focused on selling the Cell processor into financial firms, hospitals, and oil companies like Spain’s Reposal Repsol, which it inked a deal with last week. Richards said IBM doesn’t just dump that hardware and run — it spends time working with clients in each vertical to build software development kits the customer can use to get the most out of the processor. Those kits work with Intel and AMD multicore chips as well, although Richards says a user won’t see the same level of improvement they would using Cell processors.

“We knew multicore was a major inflection point in the industry,” Richards told me. “Everybody realized this and the company that addresses the [ease of programming] for this technology will win.” In some ways it’s not only about making it easy, it’s about attracting the hearts and minds of developers to a certain way of coding. That’s why IBM is offering SDKs to students who want to write parallel code on their PlayStations and Intel is pushing an undergraduate curriculum for parallel programming. This is a hardware battle fought using software.

image courtesy of DreamWorks


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Multicore programming is a fairly specialized kind of programming involving the OS kernel, graphics/audio drivers/subsystems, GPUs and threads. Creating the 3D platform is a distinct effort from, writing applications that use the 3D apis and underlying software plumbing needed to make 3D fly.

Semiconductor companies, especially Intel, are notoriously poor software architects and software implementers. Intel management might PR alot about multicores, but all their margins come from Chip wins and placements.

I’ll hold my breath.. on this effort… i have very low expectations unless Intel completely outsources this work to someone that knows what they are doing.

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