A multi-core CPU is a single computing component with two or more independent actual processors (called ‘cores’), which are the units that read and execute program instructions. Multiple cores can run multiple instructions at the same time, increasing overall speed for programs amenable to parallel computing.
Processors were originally developed with only one core. After a certain point, multi-processor techniques are no longer efficient, largely because of issues with congestion in supplying instructions and data to the many processors. The threshold is roughly in the range of several tens of cores; above this threshold network on chip technology is advantageous. Tilera processors feature a switch in each core to route data through an on-chip mesh network to lessen the data congestion, enabling their core count to scale up to 100 cores.
The improvement in performance gained by the use of a multi-core processor depends very much on the software algorithms used and their implementation. In particular, possible gains are limited by the fraction of the software that can be parallelized to run on multiple cores simultaneously; this effect is described by Amdahl’s law. In the best case, so-called embarrassingly parallel problems may realize speedup factors near the number of cores, or even more if the problem is split up enough to fit within each core’s cache(s), avoiding use of much slower main system memory. Most applications, however, are not accelerated so much unless programmers invest a prohibitive amount of effort in re-factoring the whole problem. The parallelization of software is a significant ongoing topic of research.
Several business motives drive the development of multi-core architectures. For decades, it was possible to improve performance of a CPU by shrinking the area of the integrated circuit (IC), which drove down the cost per device on the IC. Alternatively, for the same circuit area, more transistors could be utilized in the design, which increased functionality. Clock rates also increased by orders of magnitude in the decades of the late 20th century, from several megahertz in the 1980s to several gigahertz in the early 2000s. As the rate of clock speed improvements slowed, increased use of parallel computing in the form of multi-core processors has been pursued to improve overall processing performance.
In order to continue delivering regular performance improvements for general-purpose processors, manufacturers such as Intel and AMD have turned to multi-core designs, sacrificing lower manufacturing-costs for higher performance in some applications and systems. Multi-core architectures are being developed, but so are the alternatives. An especially strong contender for established markets is the further integration of peripheral functions into the chip.
The largest boost in performance due to multiple cores will likely be noticed in improved response-time while running CPU-intensive processes, like antivirus scans, ripping/burning media (requiring file conversion), or file searching. For example, if the automatic virus-scan runs while a movie is being watched, the application running the movie is far less likely to be starved of processor power, as the antivirus program will be assigned to a different processor core than the one running the movie playback.
Multi-core chips also allow higher performance at lower energy. This can be a big factor in mobile devices that operate on batteries. Since each core in multi-core is generally more energy-efficient, the chip becomes more efficient than having a single large monolithic core. This allows higher performance with less energy. The challenge of writing parallel code clearly offsets this benefit.
Maximizing the utilization of the computing resources provided by multi-core processors requires adjustments both to the operating system (OS) support and to existing application software. Also, the ability of multi-core processors to increase application performance depends on the use of multiple threads within applications. The situation is improving: for example the Valve Corporation’s Source engine offers multi-core support, and Crytek has developed similar technologies for CryEngine 2, which powers their game, ‘Crysis.’ In addition, Apple’s latest iteration of ‘OS X’ has a built-in multi-core facility called Grand Central Dispatch for Intel CPUs.
The general trend in processor development has moved from dual-, tri-, quad-, hexa-, octo-core chips to ones with tens or even hundreds of cores. In addition, multi-core chips mixed with simultaneous multithreading, memory-on-chip, and special-purpose ‘heterogeneous’ cores promise further performance and efficiency gains, especially in processing multimedia, recognition, and networking applications. There is also a trend of improving energy-efficiency by focusing on performance-per-watt with advanced fine-grain or ultra fine-grain power management and dynamic voltage and frequency scaling (i.e. laptop computers and portable media players).