Multi-core Parallelism

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I am running a six-core machine – it is actually a virtual machine. Regardless, I noticed one thing while doing it. As I went from single-core to six-core, performance improved accordingly. But when I went up to eight-core, things deteriorated. The reason for this is probably because of the arrangement of the processors. I am running a two-socketed six-core AMD system. So, for an eight-core machine to work, it would need to cross sockets, which is not a good idea due to the communications hierarchy.

So, that’s why I ended up using a six-core VM.


Speaking at BarCamp KL

Should have named it Software instead of Layers!I gave a short 30-minute talk at BarCamp KL today. The title of the talk was “Open Source Hardware – non-Arduino”. My objective was to basically make people aware of Open Source Hardware and that we exist and it is not all about Open Source Software only. My secondary objective was to generate some interest in this area among the different people in Malaysia. I basically structured my talk and whipped together some slides in 5-minutes around the title – “Open Source Hardware”.

First, I started by defining why Arduino is not Open Source Hardware. This falls squarely into the realm of embedded software programming. While you can work very closely with the hardware, you are still limited by the capabilities of the hardware. The actual layer that I talked about allows you to design the hardware itself. So, one is no longer limited by the hardware layer at all.

Hardware is further broken up into layers:

  • System – SystemC is the primary language used at this level to stitch up the software guys who code in low-level C/C++ and the hardware guys who talk a different language. It is mainly used for modeling rather than actual design.
  • RTL/Gate – Verilog and VHDL are the primary languages used at this level. This code can actually be translated directly into gates through a process called synthesis. This is the main area of work done by most digital designers.
  • Transistor – SPICE is the main language used. It allows you to model actual transistors by feeding in parameters such as gate length-width, source-drain sizes and dopant parameters. This is primarily the realm of analogue designers.

Hardware design is similar to software work in a way. The flow is similar and the skill-set required is also similar. In software the general activities are: code, compile, debug and test. In hardware, the general activities are: code, synthesise, debug and test. The bulk of the difference is the process of translating code into hardware.

In software, the compilation takes the code and outputs a binary blob that contains the software bits. In hardware, the synthesis process takes the code and outputs a bunch of logic gates. These gates can then be mapped into real hardware implementations and plopped onto an electronic board.

Of course, there are lots of open source hardware designs out there, mostly found on OpenCores.

I gave a guy the example of the Arduino. If you work with Open Source Hardware, you can actually build a super Arduino – take an open source AVR core and couple it with a ethernet core, a crypto core, a video core and then you’ve got a souped-up Arduino without the limitations. You have just opened up a whole new market.

There, a quick talk on Open Source Hardware.

Apple RISC Machines

The Internet is abuzz with rumours that Apple is considering to buy ARM – the makers of the ARM processor that has all but conquered the mobile computing space. In fact, the market has already reacted to such strong rumours and has caused the price of ARM stock to go up to £2.55 a share today.

Now, what do I think of the rumour?

The businessman in me says that it is baseless. Apple would have no incentive to buy ARM at all because ARM is an intellectual property company. It does not sell any real microprocessors but chooses instead to license out its designs to other people, of which Apple is a licensee. So, Apple can already do whatever it wants with the ARM core that it gets, short of re-selling it onto other people. It can pop it inside any product that it wishes to and even make modifications and customisations like it did for the A4 processors used in the iPad.

The only business reason for buying ARM would be to deny other competitors from using ARM chips. This makes some sense if you think of it from Steve’s point of view. ARM is undeniably the market leader in mobile computing for a reason – it has technology that allows its processors to run really fast while consuming little power. That is why everyone uses ARM cores. By controlling ARM, Steve would be able to essentially dictate who gets to make mobile devices and who does not.

However, the engineer in me thinks that Steve would be crazy to do that. Although the ARM processor is technically superior to its competition, it is by no means the only way to make mobile devices. If Apple blocks others from using ARM, there are many other people who would be happy to step into that market (including yours truly). It just does not make any sense for Apple to absorb ARM – considering that it would have to spend about $8 billion to acquire that asset.

Even if Steve decides that nobody else in the world can use ARM except Apple, they would not gain anything. Their chief rival in the mobile space – Google, would not even break a sweat. While the Android platform is currently based on ARM, there is no reason why it cannot be switched to MIPS or something else easily. The kernel is Linux, which supports dozens of microprocessor architectures besides ARM. So, while it would be a small hiccup, it would not be a show stopper.

What’s most likely happening is Apple interested in taking a significant stake in ARM. Now, that would make both engineering and business sense. A stake in ARM would allow Steve to ensure that Apple retains some sort of influence in that area as well and steers ARM in the right direction. It would also allow Apple to get cheaper licenses, which would allow Apple to put ARM in everything, including Macs and servers.

That said, I do hope that this gets ARM some much needed exposure. Not many people know them, even though they are most certainly using a device powered by an ARM processor. It is ubiquitous like that.

The Plan

Alright, I have just created a bunch of repositories on Gitorious for the purpose of managing my multiple projects. My long-term plan is to create an entire stack – from the hardware system all the way to the operating system and application software. The ultimate goal is to be able to run Android on an entirely open stack.

At the moment, the AEMB is the world’s smallest and fastest multi-threaded 32-bit RISC embedded processor. I plan to make some changes to it – integrating some of the ideas that I have had previously such as:

  • Threads – increasing the thread count to four in hardware and to unblock the threads so that they are not interlocked.
  • Compiler – make an LLVM compiler back-end to divorce ourselves from the existing GCC compilers in order to integrate atomic operations.
  • Startup – integrate an in-cache execution environment during pre-boot stage to take off some of the hardware load.
  • Kernel – write a small nano-kernel that abstracts away much of the hardware stuff in order to allow higher level code to integrate better with it.

There is a lot of work involved and I am open to participation – particularly on the software side. If anyone is interested, that is.