David May, parallel processing pioneer • reghardware

Exotic chip architectures are always interesting because they tend to be designed to fix a very particular problem. The transputer was designed to be general purpose enough that you could get it to solve a variety of problems as long as you had the chops and the development tools to do it. It was in its day a massively parallel computer in a single chip.

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INMOS T800 Transputer
Image via Wikipedia

The key idea was to create a component that could be scaled from use as a single embedded chip in dedicated devices like a TV set-top box, all the way up to a vast supercomputer built from a huge array of interconnected Transputers.

Connect them up and you had, what was, for its era, a hugely powerful system, able to render Mandelbrot Set images and even do ray tracing in real time – a complex computing task only now coming into the reach of the latest GPUs, but solved by British boffins 30-odd years ago.

via David May, parallel processing pioneer • reghardware.

I remember the Transputer. I remember seeing ISA-based add-on cards for desktop computers back in the early 1980s. They would advertise in the back of the popular computer technology magazines of the day. And while it seemed really mysterious what you could do with a Transputer, the price premium to buy those boards made you realize it must have been pretty magical.

Most recently while I was attending workshop in Open Source software I met a couple form employees of  a famous manufacturer of camera film. In their research labs these guys used to build custom machines using arrays of Transputers to speed up image processing tasks inside the products they were developing. So knowing that there’s even denser architectures using chips like Tilera, Intel Atom and ARM chips absolutely blows them away. The price/performance ratio doesn’t come close.

Software was probably the biggest point off friction in that the tools to integrate the Transputer into the overall design required another level of expertise. That is true to of the General Purpose Graphics Processing Unit (GPGU) that nVidia championed and now markets with its Tesla product line. And the Chinese have created a hybrid supercomputer mating Tesla boards up with commodity cpus. It’s too bad that the economics of designing and producing the Transputer didn’t scale with the time (the way it has for Intel as a comparison). Clock speeds also fell behind too, which allowed general purpose micro-processors to spend the extra clock cycles performing the same calculations only faster. This is also the advantage that RISC chips had until they couldn’t overcome the performance increases designed in by Intel.

Author: carpetbomberz

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