At this year’s Hot Chips conference at Stanford University, Weiwu Hu, the lead architect of the “national processor” of China, revealed three new chip designs. One of them could enable China to build a homegrown supercomputer to rank in a prestigious list of the world’s fastest machines.
The Loongson processor family (known in China by the name Godson), is now in its sixth generation. The latest designs consist of the one-gigahertz, eight-core Godson 3B, the more powerful 16-core, Godson 3C (with a speed that is currently unknown), and the smaller, lower-power one-gigahertz Godson 2H, intended for netbooks and other mobile devices. The Godson 3B will be commercially available in 2011, as will the Godson 2H, but the Godson 3C won’t debut until 2012.
According to Tom Halfhill, industry analyst and editor of Microprocessor Report, the eight-core Godson 3B will still be significantly less powerful than Intel’s best chip, the six-core Xeon processor. It will be able to perform roughly 30 percent fewer mathematical calculations per second. Intel’s forthcoming Sandy Bridge processor and AMD’s Bulldozer processor will widen the gap between chips designed by American companies and the Godson 3B.
However, China’s chip-making capabilities are improving quickly. Intel’s Xeon processor uses a 32-nanometer process (meaning the smallest components can be formed on this scale), while the Godson 3B uses 65 nanometers, leading to significantly slower processing speeds. But the Godson 3C processor will leapfrog current technology by using a 28-nanometer process, although this will only increase its clock speed by about a factor of two, estimates Halfhill. With its eight additional cores, this should make the 3C about four times as fast as the Godson 3B.
Hu, lead architect of the Godson project, said via e-mail that China’s Dawning 6000 supercomputer, originally slated for completion in mid-2010, will instead debut in 2011, using the Godson 3B. Halfhill calculates that the Dawning supercomputer will use CPUs that are slower than fastest Intel chips. However, it could still rank on the Top 500 list of the 500 fastest supercomputers in the world–a significant coup for China’s fledgling electronics industry. “Just getting into the Top 500 with a native processor is a worthy accomplishment,” says Halfhill.
The Loongson processor is based on the MIPS instruction set, the basic commands that a microprocessor understands. In contrast, Intel and AMD processors are based on the x86 instruction set. Engineers at China’s Institute of Computing Technology (ICT) have added more than 300 instructions to the MIPS instruction set in the latest generation of the Loongson processor, and most are devoted to vector processing, a technique for processing data in parallel that can speed operations like graphics and scientific processing. The Dawning 6000 would mark the first time a MIPS-based supercomputer has appeared in the Top 500 list since 2004.
The ongoing development of the Loongson processor family is good news for Stanford-based MIPS Technologies, which licenses the MIPS instruction set and competes with the x86, ARM, and IBM Power architectures. “It’s our view that the ICT team and the MIPS instruction set are in a leading position for the [Chinese] government-driven national processor effort,” says Art Swift, vice president of marketing at MIPS.
At the low end of the Godson family of processors, the new 2H chip is an incremental improvement compared to previous chips in the Godson 2 series, says Halfhill. According to Hu, the chip is designed for netbooks, other mobile devices, low-powered PCs and embedded systems.
Smaller design teams can now prototype and deploy faster.