Adapteva Pitches A Supercomputer For Your Phone

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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.

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