James Mickens, a researcher in the Distributed Systems group at Microsoft’s Redmond lab, published a witty article titled “The Slow Winter,” about the history of CPU design, in this month’s ;login magazine by usenix. He makes some good points: multiple cores has hit the limits of end-user usefulness, transistor size is nearing limits due to quantum effects and cosmic ray errors, software can not do all that much to make up for deficiencies in hardware design, and ultimately reducing CPU power consumption is the way forward in computer hardware architecture. But it’s the indirect and ADHD way in which the author lays this all out that’s really why you should read it.
It’s hard to cherry-pick lines because every one is so good, but this one is choice:
As the transistors became increasingly unpredictable, the foundations of John’s world began to crumble. So, John did what any reasonable person would do: he cloaked himself in a wall of denial and acted like nothing had happened. “Making processors faster is increasingly difficult,” John thought, “but maybe people won’t notice if I give them more processors.”
Because it’s a brilliant setup for this:
At first, John’s processors flew off the shelves. Indeed, who wouldn’t want an octavo-core machine with 73 virtual hyper-threads per physical processor? Alan Greenspan’s loose core policy and weak parallelism regulation were declared a resounding success, and John sipped on champagne as he watched the money roll in.
But this one’s the money shot:
Of course, lay people do not actually spend their time trying to invert massive hash values while rendering nine copies of the Avatar planet in 1080p. Lay people use their computers for precisely ten things, none of which involve massive computational parallelism, and seven of which involve procuring a vast menagerie of pornographic data and then curating that data using a variety of fairly obvious management techniques, like the creation of a folder called “Work Stuff,” which contains an inner folder called “More Work Stuff,” where “More Work Stuff” contains a series of ostensible documentaries that describe the economic interactions between people who don’t have enough money to pay for pizza and people who aren’t too bothered by that fact. Thus, when John said “imagine a world in which you’re constantly executing millions of parallel tasks,” it was equivalent to saying “imagine a world that you do not and will never live in.”