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Summary:

The brains inside your smartphone are getting more power with the latest version of application processors having two processing cores to help speed up the delivery of web site load times and mobile gameplay. That’s awesome, but startup Adapteva, wants to take that number higher.

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The brains inside your smartphone are getting more power with the latest application processors having two processing cores to help speed up the delivery of web site load times and mobile gameplay. That’s pretty awesome, but Adapteva, a Lexington, Mass.-based startup wants to take that number higher — a lot higher. The startup has created a design (and also the actual chip) for a 64-core accelerator that will sit inside a tablet or smartphone to help offload work from the application processor or graphics engine and do more computing on the device as opposed to sending it over a cellular or Wi-Fi network.

The concept of an accelerator is a familiar one in super computing, where the addition of a specialized massively multicore chip, such as a graphics processor or custom chip, is becoming more common. But unlike a GPU, the 64-core Adapteva chip only operates at one watt. To understand how powerful that is from an energy efficiency perspective, a four-to-eight-core server chip could operate at anywhere from 60-120 watts. And the challenge of building the next generation of supercomputers is constrained by the power demands such massive supercomputers would require.

But Andreas Olofsson, the founder and CEO of Adapteva, isn’t focusing on the HPC market at first–despite asserting that his design can scale to a 4,096-core design that would run at 64 watts. He said that while there is plenty of talk about low-power computing, “As long as you can plug something into a wall, the need for low power goes down significantly. It’s only a little bit painful.” However, in the mobile world where devices need to run all day, yet avoid bulky batteries, power consumption is at a premium. So that’s where Adapteva will focus for its big push (the company has some military applications as well).

The company began in 2008 and has managed to raise $2 million in funding from angels and boardmaker BittWare, its first customer. Amazingly, with that small amount of funding it has managed to have three versions of its chip built, making the startup incredibly capital efficient. However, the goal isn’t to build chips for the mobile market, but to license the technology, much like ARM, the firm behind the most common architecture in mobile phones, does. BittWare will manufacture the Adaptevea chip design — called the Epiphany– on its boards.

But in a highly competitive market, and especially on smarthphones, where space on the board is at such a premium, will device makers really embrace an unproven and as-yet-unneeded chip? Olofsson has two more difficult tasks to accomplish (since he’s apparently taken care of the hard task of building and designed a 64-core chip that runs at 1 watt for less than $2 million.) He must explain to board makers, chip firms and device makers why gadgets need this rather foreign accelerator chip, and he has to convince them that it makes sense to process data on the phone, rather than ship it over the cellular network.

The first task is made easier by the low-power envelope and by the fact that the full 64-core system on a system is fairly small — about 8mm square Olofsson said. Check out the model of the A5 system on a chip used inside Apple devices provided below to see how much space the Epiphany chip can take up. It would have to replace existing GPUs in this case.

The second task may be made easier by people’s desire to handle tasks such as speech or facial recognition or intense video games on their mobile devices. Olofsson argues that the latency inherent in sending even voice recognition to a server is problematic and that gameplay is impossible. Plus it costs more in terms of data charges and can drain the battery. “If you can keep the radio quiet and use the processing locally the battery life gets better,” he said.

Like many visionaries pushing a new technology he’s not entirely sure how the Epiphany could change mobile computing, but he’s certain that by boosting performance on smartphones to this degree it will. I’m eager to see if mobile device makers agree.

  1. Not to be snarky, but I couldn’t help snickering when I read “he has to convince them that it makes sense to process data on the phone, rather than ship it over the cellular network.” If it were me he had to convince, he’d have nothing to do – I waste at least a few minutes every day waiting for data to ship over the cellular network. And, of course, things like Google’s speech understanding simply fall flat without a good network connection.

    I’ve just recently been reminded of how far phones have to go in computing power. I had to redesign a couple of pages of the mobile version of my web app CardVine, because they were taking up to 30 seconds to render even on a Nexus One, one of the most powerful phones in the world at the moment. The same pages rendered almost instantly in desktop Safari on a MacBook Pro.

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  2. Mobile operators would also support the notion “it makes sense to process data on the phone, rather than ship it over the cellular network” as it would lower the demands put on the cellular (radio) network in trms of latency and throughput.

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    1. Yup, and these chips are small and battery efficient enough that they can be shipped as a dongle with fairly lightweight firmware, so I suppose you could plug one into your tablet, although I’m pretty sure that’s a hard sell to a normal consumer. A USB hardware accelerator for your tablet.

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  3. eric thayer Tuesday, May 3, 2011

    Imagine these being part of mobile autonomous systems too.

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  4. 1. Many computations are shipped to external servers because the memory and data requirements are far too large to fit on a small local computer. For example, voice recognition needs a significant database for high accuracy.

    2. General purpose processors vs. specialized processors (e.g. Epiphany vs. GPU)–which is better changes all the time, though specialized has been winning in the GPU market for more than a decade (even though GPUs have become less specialized recently).

    3. High level architecture above reminds me of Transputers and KSR1 (Kendall Square Research), also systolic arrays.

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  5. Hello,

    What about SW? I assume this is all prop HW and not based on the ARM core, which has soon become the defacto HW platform for handhelds. So how will OSes such as Android or IOS or Windows work with this chip?

    thanks.

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  6. Nicholas Chase Tuesday, May 3, 2011

    Do we even have to wonder whether today’s tablets and mobile devices need more power? Of course they do! Even the fastest mobile devices can hardly beat a first-gen Atom loading web pages, and people don’t want to stand around like idiots while their phones hunt down information. The sooner we get this tech into our devices, the sooner we’ll find out just how awesome having it will be.
    What’s also amazing to me is the power-performance ratio they’re talking about. With facebook and google taking so much heat for sucking down so much electricity, why wouldn’t they jump at a chance to build these into their next server racks? Forget an accelerator card for my tablet, I want 4,096 of those in my computer!

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  7. Luc Desaulniers Wednesday, May 4, 2011

    I can see this technology being used in medical imagery. More and more hospitals and physicians are using iPads and iPhones in their daily procedures.

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    1. Why will iPad & iPhone use a chip with no clear SW path?

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  8. Very nice. Storage has come a long way, once the displays catch up I think we’ll see some devices that are much more widely usable.

    Flexible, roll-up 10″x5″ display on your phone, here it comes.

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  9. This trick never works.

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  10. My vision of mobile devices would be to shrink my PC to fit on my hip, then dock to a keyboard and monitor for a more conventional experience. However, the full power of the device, along with its local storage, stay on my hip. The cloud has a lot to offer, but so does extremely portable, powerful computing. Mobile employees could leverage high power almost anywhere in this case.

    I’ve seen BlackBerry’s tablet offering that hints in this direction, and seems to have the business user well in mind. Another TV ad showed what I think was an android phone being snapped onto the back of a laptop-looking thing… Apparently, there are hints of pushing more power and productivity onto a very mobile device, with accessories that scale the keyboarding and video when necessary or needed.

    I’m loving the possibilities….

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