Who’s in Charge of Multicore?

Like just about every other technology, multicore processors have an industry organization to help create best practices and guidelines. For developers, following The Multicore Association (MCA) can be a convenient way to keep up with what processor manufacturers, OS vendors, universities and other ecosystem members are planning a year or two out. MCA president Markus Levy recently spoke with Intelligence in Software about the organization’s current initiatives.

Q: What’s MCA’s role in the industry? For example, do you work with other trade groups and standards bodies?

Markus Levy: Multicore is a huge topic with many varieties of processors, issues and benefits. It boils down to the target market and, specifically, the target application to determine whether to use a homogeneous symmetrical multiprocessing processor or a highly integrated system-on-a-chip with many heterogeneous processing elements. The Multicore Association is and will be biting off a chunk of this to enable portability and ease of use.

With this in mind, we primarily aim to develop application program interfaces (APIs) to allow processor and operating system vendors and programmers to develop multicore-related products using open specifications. It’s important to note that The Multicore Association doesn’t currently work with other trade groups or standards bodies. We never intend to compete and/or develop redundant specifications.

Q: Developers work with whatever hardware vendors provide at any given time. In this case, that’s multicore processors. How can keeping up with MCA help developers understand what kind of hardware and software might be available to them in a year, three years or five years down the road? For example, what are some current association initiatives that they should keep an eye on?

M.L.: Good question. Notice that the MCA membership comprises a mixture of processor vendors, OS vendors and system developers. The main benefit for processor vendors is to support current and future generations of multicore processors. In other words, it makes it easier for their customers to write their application code once and only require minor changes as they move to another generation processor.

The OS vendors are also utilizing the MCA standards to enhance their offerings, and customers are requesting it. System developers are actually using our open standards to create their own proprietary implementations that are optimized for their needs.

We currently have a Tools Infrastructure Working Group (TIWG) that is defining a common data format and creating standards-based mechanisms to share data across diverse and non-interoperable development tools, specifically related to the interfaces between profilers and analysis/visualization tools. Actually, in this regard, the TIWG is also collaborating with the CE Linux Forum on a reference implementation for a de-facto trace data format standard that TIWG will define.

Our most popular specification to date is the Multicore Communications API (MCAPI), and the working group is currently defining and developing refinements and enhancements for version 2.0. MCAPI is now implemented by most OS vendors, quite a few university projects, as well as versions developed by system companies.

We’ve recently formed a Multicore Task Management API (MTAPI) working group that is focused on dynamic scheduling and mapping tasks to processor cores to help optimize throughput on multicore systems. MTAPI will provide an API that allows parallel embedded software to be designed in a straightforward way, abstracting the hardware details and letting the software developer focus on the parallel solution of the problem. This is already turning out to be quite popular with fairly extensive member involvement. It’s an important piece of the puzzle that many developers will be able to utilize in the next one to two years.

Q: Multicore processors have a lot of obvious advantages, particularly performance. But are there any challenges? The need for more parallelism seems like one. What are some others? And how is The Multicore Association working to address those challenges?

M.L.: There are many challenges of using multicore processors. Parallelizing code is just one aspect. Again, it also depends on the type of multicore processor and how it is being used. While the MTAPI is focused on the parallel solution, the MCAPI is critical to enable core-to-core communications, and our Multicore Resource management API (MRAPI) specification is focused on dealing with on-chip resources that are shared by two or more cores, such as shared memory and I/O.

Q: The MCA website has a lot of resources, such as webinars and a discussion group. Would you recommend those as a good way for developers to keep up with MCA activities?

M.L.: The webinars provide good background information on the projects we have completed so far, so I recommend these as starting points. The discussion group is very inactive. Better ways to stay up on activities include:

  • Subscribing to the MCA newsletter. This comes out every four to eight weeks, depending on whether or not there is news to be reported.
  • We also have special cases where nonmembers can attend meetings as guests. They can contact me for assistance.
  • Attend the Multicore Expo once a year, where members go into depth on the specifications. Plus, other industry folks present on various multicore technologies.

Photo Credit: @iStockphoto.com/4kodiak

by Tim Kridel