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dual core processing: over-simplified, demystified and explained.

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dual core processing: over-simplified, demystified and

explained.: at a glance
date:september 09, 2004


a dual core processor is exactly what it sounds like. it is

two processor cores on one die essentially like having a dual
processor system in one processor.
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dual core processing: over-simplified, demystified and


dual core processing: over-simplified, demystified

and explained.

the latest buzz in the processor industry is about

dual core processors. amd may be the first to take
the limelight with their announcement of dual core
amd opteron processors set to launch in mid-2005
but intel and ibm are cueing up their dual core
processors as well.
a dual core processor is exactly what it sounds
like. it is two processor cores on one die
essentially like having a dual processor system in
one processor. amd's opteron processor has been
dual processor capable since its inception.
opteron was designed with an extra hypertransport
link. the relevance of it was mostly overlooked.
hypertransport technology simply means a faster
connection that is able to transfer more data
between two chips. this does not mean that the
chip itself is faster. it means that the
capability exists via the hypertransport pathway
for one chip to �talk� to another chip or device
at a faster speed and with greater data
we knew that hypertransport technology would
provide for a faster connection to system memory,
the gpu and the rest of the motherboard but back
in the fall of 2003 we thought of the extra
hypertransport link as a connection to another
physical processor.

it didn't dawn on us that the "extra" processor

could be on the same die. while some will say "i
knew that" most didn't pick up on it.
amd have the added punch of being able to drop
their dual core opteron processors into existing
940-pin sockets. this upgrade path is extremely
favorable as all it will require is a processor
swap and, perhaps, a bios update.
intel are continuing with their pentium 4 cores by
releasing two flavors codenamed paxville and
dempsey. the codenames will very likely change
once the marketing department gets their hands on
it as "introducing the new dempsey" has a very
lackluster ring to it.
mac orientated think secret posted ibm plans on
the powerpc 970mp codenamed antares and rumored to
clock in at 3ghz with a 1ghz ei (elastic
interface) bus.
the horses are now in the paddock. amd, intel and
mac loyalists are beginning to group at the fence
to eye up their favorite and the competition. the
post parade is still a ways off and with post time
now set at mid-2005 it's anybody's guess who will
be out of the gate first.
why the shift to dual core and how will this
impact the gigahertz performance race? who or what
will dual core processing benefit and will it be
sought after by enthusiasts or left buried deep
inside the dark recesses of server rooms?
the broad brush paints a processor as a device
that executes a series of instructions to tell it
what to do which, in turn, tells everything else
it interacts with what to do. the faster it can do
this the better. "faster" can be directly related
to clock speed but don't make the mistake of
thinking that intel's higher clock speeds make it
"faster" than amd.
both amd and intel scaled up the clock speeds of
their processors in a very short amount of time
but have recently slowed the curve. amd moved from
the 1ghz "thunderbird" to the athlon64 fx53 in in
a little less than 4 years which is impressive
considering from 1997 until 2000 the k6 processor
family saw a mere 4-500 mhz clock speed increase.
it is the flattening of the clock speed curve that
some are reasoning why a shift to dual core. some
have surmised that amd and intel have hit clock
speed walls and another route is being taken to
continue the performance curve and stay top of
mind with new product releases. the problem with
winding up clock speeds is heat. at present the
processor engine can operate at only so much rpm
before the engine will seize. heat is the enemy of
any processor and high clock speeds mean high heat
and that means errors. a windows pc running at
10ghz isn't much good if it can't make it past
booting up before crashing.
that heat comes from power. it takes a lot of
juice to crank up a processor to high clock speeds
and a processor with that much electricity running
around the die is prone to noise. it's not audible
noise like a high rpm cooling fan but electrical
noise otherwise akin to interference. the pathways
on a processor are microscopically close together.
the more power that runs through these pathways
due to the requirement of higher clock speeds
means that there will be a small amount of
electrical radiation from one pathway to the next.
that leakage could corrupt the data in another
pathway. corrupted data means errors which means a
program could get cranky.
think of it like a hot element on a stove. a hand
can be placed fairly close with the burner on low.
turn the burner up to high and it get's pretty
uncomfortable to keep a hand at the same distance
it was when the burner was on low. it may even
burn a hand. the radiated heat from the burner
"corrupts" the hand resulting in a burn. in a
processor the thermal heat is an issue but it's
also the electrical noise like a radio station
that isn't quite tuned in. the data is "dirty" and
the song isn't clear enough to understand.
are two cores better than one?
there will most likely be three terms that come up
to fuel the dual core debate; pipeline, cache and
this is the most basic of explanations of what a
processor pipeline is. first the data instruction
set is needed.

a processor loads instructions into the pipeline.

think of the pipeline like a conveyor belt. the
data is processed sequentially one after another.

the amd processor pipeline is shorter than the

intel processor pipeline and this is one of the
reasons why amd runs at a lower clock speed.
pipelining, like most things in life, is good in
moderation. making a processor's pipeline too
short causes a longer minimum clock period which
hinders the manufacturer's ability to ramp up the
clock speed. making the pipeline very long allows
faster clock speeds however it also increases the
cost of stalls and flushes which negatively
affects performance and also increases the amount
of resources required to pipeline the processor.
this is discussed in-depth in short-media's
pipelining explained article.
a shorter pipeline means that more work has to be
done in the pipeline per clock cycle thus the
clock speed cannot be as high compared to a
processor with a longer pipeline. however, with a
shorter pipeline, the data gets through it faster
thus balancing the equation. this is one of the
reasons why an amd processor can compete with
higher clocked intel processors.

data that that is continually used in preparation

for the pipeline is stored in the processor's
cache and a processor is smart enough to
anticipate what data it may require.

if the processor needs to reach outside of the

cache then it does so through the bus to system
ram. now remember that the processor cache is
running at the same clock speed as the processor
itself. if it is a 2 ghz processor then the speed
limit on the highway between cache and the rest of
the processor is 2ghz. if the processor has to
reach out through the bus to main system memory
then it must slow down to that bus speed. a bus
speed of 400 mhz is five times slower than the 2
ghz example.
in layman's terms think of the processor as a
carpenter. the carpenter's truck is system memory
and the cache are the tools he's packed into the
house for the job. the carpenter has anticipated
what tools he may need to do the job. if the tool
is not at hand then he must go back to the truck
to get the right tool thus slowing down the job at
putting it all together
two pairs of hands make the work go faster. this
is quite true in computers with dual processors
especially with smp (symmetric multiprocessing)
software. not all software is smp aware. in fact
only a small percentage of it is. smp capability
is something that must be written into the code.
the program must know that it can utilize two
processors to complete processes simultaneously.
this is known as multithreading.
a dual core processor is between a single core
processor and a dual processor system for
architecture. a dual core processor has two cores
but will share some of the other hardware like the
memory controller and bus. a dual processor system
has completely separate hardware and shares
nothing with the other processor.
a dual core processor won't be twice as fast as a
single core processor nor will it be as fast as a
dual processor system.
it will fall somewhere in the middle but there are
going to be specific advantages.
there will be two pipelines and that means there
can be two sets of instructions being carried out

there will also be two processor caches to keep

more of the necessary "tools" or data on the
processor die for faster access.
the trick will be the bus. if everyone wants on
the bus at the same time then there will be the
keystone cops comedy of errors as everyone tries
to squeeze through the door at the same time. the
two processor cores have to be designed to be
smart enough to "wait" for the other to finish
accessing the bus.
now all of this is happening at the nanosecond
level so don't think there's time for a coffee.
nanosecond wait states means there's not even
enough time to think about thinking about having a
to smp or not to smp?
the processor engineers have probably already
thought about tackling the smp situation. what
good is a dual core processor if the software only
recognizes and then uses only one of the cores?
the majority of software is not written to utilize
multithreading at present. this breaks open a
whole new can of worms in concepts of parallel
intel's hyper-threading is a single processor
logical variation of dual core processors. amd has
just taken it one step further with two physical
cores on one processor die. could amd's engineers
have cracked the hardware problem of a dual core
processor and load balancing a program that isn't
written for multithreading?
this is where dual core processors could fall
short of expectations for mainstream users. if the
software cannot "see" the second processor then it
will not benefit from it. programs, such as adobe
photoshop, are smp aware and are much faster on a
dual processor system. there is no doubt that a
program like photoshop will be much faster on a
dual core system than its single core counterpart.
the majority of operating systems do recognize and
support at least two processors. there is some
load balancing of non-smp applications but not as
efficiently as those written for multithreading.
the bottom line...for now
the benefit will come for users who multitask. as
in a dual processor system there is a second
processor core to share the load either in
balanced form or by itself. if one processor is
busy burning a dvd then the second is available
to, i don't know, bake bread. the point is there
are now two pairs of processor hands to execute
multiple tasks simultaneously.
for the home enthusiast it mean less processor
hiccups while playing doom iii and, at the same
time, burning a dvd or listening to music.
dual core processors brings a whole new twist to
server environments. dual or quad servers based on
the 940-pin opteron processor may be on the road
to some staggering performance results. amd
recently demonstrated a 4-socket hp proliant dl585
server powered by 4 dual core opteron processors.
think about it. that's like 8 processors for the
price of four. it boggles the mind to think of
dual core on an 8-way system.
for the processor manufacturer dual core means a
less expensive route to producing a new product
that continues the performance curve. the pr
rating numbers will be interesting. a dual core
opteron that has two 2.4 ghz cores won't be
classified as a 3800+, for example, or twice that
at a 7600+. since amd dual core processors are
going to be released in the 940-pin flavor first
then it will be an fx. most likely the fx-57 which
brings up the question of "where'd fx-55 go?"
nevertheless there will be the performance
increase and getting the consumers head wrapped
around dual core as better will be a challenge.
the public believes that two processors are better
than one but also expensive. there are two
processors (or more) to buy, a multi-processor
motherboard, special ram and so on. with dual core
processor technology there isn't the added cost of
a second physical processor. the manufacturing
process is very close to single core cost so, it
is hoped, that the dual core processor won't have
a shocking sticker price. it will, obviously, be
more as the newest and fastest always does cost
more but it has to be less than the total of two
comparable opteron processors.
dual core processors will also be hard to slot
into the gigahertz realm of public comprehension.
does "two 2.4 ghz cores" sound slower or faster
than the same processor described as a "3.6 ghz
comparable"? it's for certain that the two core
clock speeds won't be combined for a gigahertz
rating but a comparable gigahertz rating will be
assigned for those still stuck comparing which
number is bigger in the gigahertz wars.
bottom line it's what we've been saying for a year
now. it's the mushroom effect. for amd it isn't so
much about do it's about do more of
it faster.
amd must be feeling smug by now because many had
foretold of the end of the 940-pin era for the
desktop and workstation. opteron indeed is alive
and well for the server but it will again be heard
roaring in the enthusiast and desktop market.

more on amd and dual-core processors at the amd

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