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Friday, 17 December 2010 12:31

Technology growth to come to a screaming halt

Written by Nick Farell
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Huge changes in software and microchips needed
A new report from the US National Research Council has warned that technology growth will grind to a halt unless a new generation of hardware and software is developed. The catchy-titled “The Future of Computing Performance: Game over or next level?” is packed full of bad news for the industry.

While microprocessors improved in speed by a factor of 10,000 during the 1980s and 1990s, two obstacles could mean computing power hitting a wall in the next decade, the report said.

While transistors have become ever smaller and more tightly packed, the speed at which microchips are clocked has levelled off, reaching around 3 gigahertz in 2005. That's because such fast chips generate too much heat to be used in smartphones and personal computers.

This plateau will kill Moore's law. While manufacturers have been fabricating two, four or eight microprocessor cores on a single chip to get around this hurdle, it is not enough the report warns. This is because the power efficiency of present transistors cannot be improved much more, and performance "will become limited by power consumption within a decade". It needs a yet-to-be-invented transistor architecture to save it.

Software is still behind hardware developments with multicore chips still not properly factored into designs. Software has to be designed to execute multiple tasks in parallel, rather than serially and few programs are up to this challenge.

But the report warns that converting the vast majority of software, written for serial execution, to work efficiently in parallel mode will be exceedingly difficult. It needs new software-engineering processes and tools. Programmers will need to be retrained, it warned.

Nick Farell

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