ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 07, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 32

New Year panorama of technology

For a reason that nobody has yet been able to explain to me with any conviction, we keep track of our lives in terms of years. As we step into 2007, I naturally started thinking about the technological icons that I would look forward to see during the next twelve months.

It is not easy to escape the fact that Windows Vista will be one of the big talking points this year. What is perhaps ironic is that the story of Vista highlights the need for the key IT skills that will be highly sought after by the industry in the coming year, such as programmers and application designers, multimedia specialists, project managers, computer security experts and network engineers. This week, we feature two key developments that 2006 will most likely be remembered for; the coming of age of the multi-core processor and the unleashing of Wiki technology especially for information organisation and retrieval purposes.

More the merrier
Desktop microprocessors enjoyed key advances in 2006. All but the low-end x86 chips migrated to dual-core, in which two processor cores are placed on the same piece of silicon; in effect giving consumers two processors for the price of one. Both AMD and Intel have made clear that future advances in processor performance will come from the addition of more cores. True to its word, Intel shipped a four-core, or quad-core, chip in late 2006. AMD has announced it will ship a quad-core competitor early next year. Consumers buying these chips, however, have been unimpressed by the performance boost they received. Hard science backs up their disappointment.

On multi-core chips, each core runs slower than the 3.4GHz high-water mark for Pentium 4 and Athlon chips, to which we'd all become accustomed. The reason for this has to do with power consumption.

The vendors have taken two cores whose power consumption is below the turn and put them together on a single chip. Each core operates at well under 3GHz, but the two cores together exceed this performance level. To enjoy this performance however, desktop software must make use of the additional cores by using multiple threads or multithreading, where the programme is broken up into discrete tasks (implemented as threads) that can execute on the various cores. Until then, single-threaded programs which include most desktop software run on a single, slower core. On the server, in contrast, most software is already threaded, so the addition of new cores results in an immediate performance boost. For this reason, server processors, such as Intel Xeon, AMD Opteron, IBM Power, and Sun Sparc are the vanguard of multiple cores. For example, in late 2006, Sun announced that its forthcoming "Rock" chip would run 16 cores. It will be a while before desktop processors reach that level, but it will surely happen. Another prospect is the greater integration between general-purpose microprocessors, such as those running most computers today, with specialty graphics chips found on graphics cards. Graphics processors are distinguished by exceptional capabilities in floating-point arithmetic that could serve as an adjunct to CPUs. AMD's 2006 acquisition of ATI, one of the two leading makers of graphics chips, gave speculation about these possibilities a boost.

A specialty hybrid of this kind was, in fact, unveiled in the Cell chip, which IBM, Toshiba, and Sony co-designed. It uses a PowerPC core supplemented with eight arithmetic co-processors individually dedicated to multimedia tasks.

The Cell made its large-scale debut in the Sony PlayStation 3, which was released late in 2006 and was widely- acclaimed for its superior graphics.

The year 2006 demonstrated that the microprocessor market continues to be a locus of rapid innovation. The ascendancy of AMD in its perennial fight with Intel assures us that 2007 will continue the trend of delivering new and interesting features to customers at remarkably favourable prices.

Public interest
The voluntary collaborative "wiki" model, which was marshalled to create the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, is being recruited for another challenge: to build a better search engine. The project, called Wikiasari for now, was announced in December by Wikia, a for-profit company co-founded by Jimmy Wales, the former options trader who has been the public face of Wikipedia. Like Wikipedia, a wiki search engine would be based on the idea that volunteers can do the work of paid specialists – in the case of search engines, the work of sophisticated computers that evaluate websites for relevance using secret criteria.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.