Moore's Law, the observation by Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore that the number of transistors on a chip doubles approximately every two years, has been accurate for half a century. As a result, we now carry more processing power in the mobile phones in our pockets than could fit in a house-sized computer in the 1960s. But by around 2020 Moore's Law will start to reach its limits: the laws of physics will eventually pose a barrier to higher transistor density, but other factors such as heat, energy consumption and cost look set to slow the increase in performance even sooner.
At the same time, the world is in the midst of a data explosion, with humans and machines generating, storing, sharing and accessing ever increasing amounts of data in many different forms, on a multitude of different devices that require more energy-efficient, higher-performance processors.
How can computing systems, now facing a post-Moore era, meet this ever growing demand?
It is an open-ended question, but one that European researchers are working hard to answer, thanks in large measure to the efforts of HiPEAC (1), a 'Network of excellence' from academia and industry that has been helping to steer European computing systems research since 2004. Currently in its third incarnation, supported over four years by EUR 3.8 million in funding from the European Commission, the project has become the most visible and far-reaching computing systems network in Europe.
'HiPEAC was set up with three main goals: to bring together academia and industry, to bring together hardware and software developers and to create a real, visible computer systems community in Europe. On those fronts, and many others, we have undoubtedly succeeded,' says Koen De Bosschere, professor of the computer systems lab of Ghent University in Belgium and coordinator of the HiPEAC network.
HiPEAC's conferences and networking events are now attended by hundreds of academic researchers and industry representatives from Europe and beyond; the network's summer schools, workshops and exchange grants between universities are helping train researchers in new and emerging areas of computing systems theory and technology; and the project's biannual roadmap has become a guideline for both the public and private sector as to where research funding should be channelled.
'We now have a portfolio of between 30 and 40 computer systems projects that we are working with. The researchers involved come to our events, which have become one of the sector's main networking opportunities, and several projects have actually emerged from people meeting at our conferences,' Prof. De Bosschere notes.
He points, for example, to the EuroCloud project, which began in 2010 with the support of EUR 3.3 million in funding from the European Commission. Coordinated by microprocessor designer ARM in the United Kingdom, the project is developing on-chip servers using multiple ARM cores and integrating 3D DRAM with the aim of reducing energy consumption and costs at data centres by as much as 90 %.
The idea for the project first arose at the HiPEAC conference in Cyprus in 2009, Prof. De Bosschere notes. 'These kinds of networking opportunities are really showing their worth in spurring collaboration and innovation."
A roadmap of challenges and opportunities for Europe
Meanwhile, the HiPEAC Roadmap, a new edition of which is due to be published this year, has become something of a guidebook for the future of computing systems research in Europe.
'We didn't really set out doing it with that aim in mind, but the Commission took notice of it, consulted with industry on it, found the challenges we had identified to be accurate and started to use it to focus research funding,' the HiPEAC coordinator explains. 'Since we produced the first edition in 2008, EU funding in the sector has almost tripled and the next call will offer around EUR 70 million.'
For the short and medium term, the latest edition of the HiPEAC report concludes that specialising computing devices is the most promising but difficult path for dramatically improving the performance of future computing systems. In this light, HiPEAC has identified seven concrete research objectives - from energy efficiency to system complexity and reliability - related to the design and the exploitation of specialised heterogeneous systems. But in the longer term, the HiPEAC researchers say it will be critical to pursue research directions that break with classical systems, and their traditional hardware/software boundary, by investigating new devices and new computing paradigms, such as bio-inspired systems, stochastic computing and swarm computing.
'We can only go so far by following current trends and approaches, but in the long run we will nonetheless want and require more processing power that is more reliable, consumes less energy, produces less heat and can fit into smaller devices. More processing power means more applications and entirely new markets - just look at what's happened with smartphones and tablet computers over the last five years,' Prof. De Bosschere says. 'For industry, it means that today, instead of a person having just one desktop or laptop computer, they may have three or four devices.'
And, in the future, he sees ever higher-performance devices doing much more than is possible or even imaginable today: bio-inspired neural networks powering data mining applications at 1 % of the energy consumption of today's data centres, for example, or smartphones that can analyse a blood sample, sequence the DNA and detect a virus in a few minutes, rather than the days it takes using laboratory computer systems at present.
'The potential applications for computing technology in almost every aspect of life are almost endless - we just need to make sure we have the processing power to run them,' he says.
HiPEAC received research funding under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme.
- European Commission's Digital Agenda website
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- HiPEAC Vision: 'Keep it simple for humans and let the computer do the hard work'
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