Sunday, 16 June 2013

Free lunch for programers

In my blog post Why shared mutable state is the root of all evil. I commented on the fact that for the last 10 years the free lunch for programers was over and significant performance gains were only possible by developing concurrent programs.

Last night I came across Herb Sutter who described this idea for the first time in early 2005 in his article in the Dr. Dobb's Journal titled "The Free Lunch Is Over - A Fundamental Turn Toward Concurrency in Software". Credit where credit is due I thought I write a blog post about this article.

Herb really hit the nail on the head and it is actually surprising to find a 8 year old text about computer performance which is pretty much still up-to-date.

Here is a quote from the article:

Quick: What’s the clock speed on the CPU(s) in your current workstation? Are you running at 10GHz? On Intel chips, we reached 2GHz a long time ago (August 2001), and according to CPU trends before 2003, now in early 2005 we should have the first 10GHz Pentium-family chips. A quick look around shows that, well, actually, we don’t. What’s more, such chips are not even on the horizon—we have no good idea at all about when we might see them appear. Well, then, what about 4GHz? We’re at 3.4GHz already—surely 4GHz can’t be far away? Alas, even 4GHz seems to be remote indeed. In mid-2004, as you probably know, Intel first delayed its planned introduction of a 4GHz chip until 2005, and then in fall 2004 it officially abandoned its 4GHz plans entirely. As of this writing, Intel is planning to ramp up a little further to 3.73GHz in early 2005 (already included in Figure 1 as the upper-right-most dot), but the clock race really is over, at least for now; Intel’s and most processor vendors’ future lies elsewhere as chip companies aggressively pursue the same new multicore directions.

It is almost scary to see that even now 8 years later the article was first published the fastest Intel CPU is the i7-3970X which has 3.5GHz with 6 Cores and 15MB of cache. For a while the CPU can increase its clockspeed for a bit (turbo mode) but this happens only if the CPU temperature it not too high already. In other words there are still no common CPUs with 4GHz or more in the market.

However the trend to more transistors and multicore processors is continuing. Intel's forthcoming Xeon Phi uses the Many Integrated Core Architecture and will have up to 61 cores, 30MB of L2 cache and only 1.25GHz clockspeed per core.


To improve throughput, latency and utilization in a world of CPUs with ever growing number of cores applications need to able to run in parallel. As a consequence higher-level concurrent programming techniques like message passing, which don't rely on shared mutable, will become more and more important in the future.

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