Intel hits teraflop high with new Knights Corner chips

Intel's Many Integrated Cores (MIC) project, in which the company hopes to create a PCI Express-based accelerator card for supercomputing applications, has just hit a major milestone: a single Knights Corner chip offering over a teraflop of double-precision floating point performance.

Intel's MIC is nothing new: originally codenamed Knights Ferry, the second-generation Knights Corner hardware was a big part of Intel's briefing at the International Supercomputer Conference (ISC) earlier this year. At the time, Intel's Tony Neal-Graves promised a launch on 22nm with tri-gate technology, but was surprisingly quiet on a timescale.

The Knights Corner and original Knights Ferry boards are designed as add-in accelerators for floating point operations, packing more than 50 processing cores into a card with 2GB of high-speed GDDR5 memory to offload tasks that the processor is ill-equipped to handle.

The MIC project is a major part of Intel's 'exascale' vision, but it's also a clear reaction to the popularity of GPU-based supercomputer applications, where traditional CPUs are supplemented with massively parallel GPUs remarkably similar in design to a Knights Corner board.

Intel's booth at ISC earlier this year featured a demonstration system with eight prototype Knights Ferry first-generation boards pushing 7.4 teraflops - trillions of floating points operations per second - in total, or around 772 gigaflops per board plus CPUs.

That's impressive, but the new Knights Corner hardware - which adds tri-gate '3D' chip technology and shrinks the process size from 45nm to 22nm - goes a stage further, breaking the teraflop barrier in a single chip.

Unveiled at SC'11, the latest Knights Corner hardware - which will form Intel's first mainstream commercial offering of the MIC architecture - offers around a teraflop of double-precision floating point performance, or the equivalent of the Sandia Lab's entire ASCI RED supercomputer which was built in 1997 using 9,680 Intel Pentium Pro chips.

"Having this performance now in a single chip based on Intel MIC architecture is a milestone that will once again be etched into HPC history," crowed Intel's general manager of technical computing, Rajeeb Hazra, at the event - adding that the new Knights Corner hardware represents the first single chip to hit teraflop performance levels for double-precision floating point calculations.

Intel isn't alone in thinking that many-core - rather than multi-core - processors are the way forward: several start-up companies are targeting the same space, including Adapteva and Tilera, although few can match Intel's research and development budget.