Perhaps the second most famous law in electronics after Ohm’s law is Moore’s law: the number of transistors that can be made on an integrated circuit doubles every two years or so. Since the physical size of chips remains roughly the same, this implies that the individual transistors become smaller over time. We’ve come to expect new generations of chips with a smaller feature size to come along at a regular pace, but what exactly is the point of making things smaller? And does smaller always mean better?
Smaller Size Means Better Performance
Over the past century, electronic engineering has improved massively. In the 1920s, a state-of-the-art AM radio contained several vacuum tubes, a few enormous inductors, capacitors and resistors, several dozen meters of wire to act as an antenna, and a big bank of batteries to power the whole thing. Today, you can listen to a dozen music streaming services on a device that fits in your pocket and can do a gazillion more things. But miniaturization is not just done for ease of carrying: it is absolutely necessary to achieve the performance we’ve come to expect of our devices today. Continue reading “Smaller Is Sometimes Better: Why Electronic Components Are So Tiny”→
There was a time, a few years back, when the constant exponential growth rate of the number of transistors packed into an IC was taken for granted: every two years, a doubling in density. After all, it was a “law” proposed by Gordon E. Moore, founder of Intel. Less a law than a production goal for a silicon manufacturer, it proved to be a very useful marketing gimmick.
Rumors of the death of Moore’s law usually stir up every couple years, and then Intel would figure out a way to pack things even more densely. But lately, even Intel has admitted that the pace of miniaturization has to slow down. And now we have confirmation in Nature: the cost of Intel continuing its rate of miniaturization is less than the benefit.
We’ve already gotten used to CPU speed increases slowing way down in the name of energy efficiency, so this isn’t totally new territory. Do we even care if the Moore’s-law rate slows down by 50%? How small do our ICs need to be?
Moore’s Law states the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double about every two years. This law, coined by Intel and Fairchild founder [Gordon Moore] has been a truism since it’s introduction in 1965. Since the introduction of the Intel 4004 in 1971, to the Pentiums of 1993, and the Skylake processors introduced last month, the law has mostly held true.
The law, however, promises exponential growth in linear time. This is a promise that is ultimately unsustainable. This is not an article that considers the future roadblocks that will end [Moore]’s observation, but an article that says the expectations of Moore’s Law have already ended. It ended quietly, sometime around 2005, and we will never again see the time when transistor density, or faster processors, more capable graphics cards, and higher density memories will double in capability biannually.
We covered that original build almost three years ago. It’s a cluster called the Iridris Pi supercomputer. The difference is a 700 MHz single core versus the 900 Mhz quad-core with double-the ram. This let [James] benchmark his four-node-wonder at 3.048 gigaflops. You’re a bit fuzzy about what a gigaflops is exactly? So were we… it’s a billion floating point operations per second… which doesn’t matter to your human brain. It’s a ruler with which you can take one type of measurement. This is triple the performance at 1/16th the number of nodes. The cost difference is staggering with the Iridris ringing in at around £2500 and the light-weight 4-node built at just £120. That’s more than an order of magnitude.
Look, there’s nothing fancy to see in [James’] project announcement. Yet. But it seems somewhat monumental to stand back and think that a $35 computer aimed at education is being used to build clusters for crunching Ph.D. level research projects.