Our industry is littered with over-used terms whose meaning becomes ever more jaded as more people use them. We’re in danger of “heterogeneous” being another of them. But I sincerely hope we can live with that, because heterogeneous systems are going to be with us for a very long time to come. One of the first steps towards this is the recent announcement of the ratification of the HSAIL language specification from the HSA Foundation.

HSA Foundation

For as long as I’ve been involved in semiconductor processors – well over 30 years now – the desire for us to remove the bottlenecks of sequential processing has been insatiable. It hasn’t been solved until now for the simple reason that any traditional processor architecture has always suffered from the basic problem that any platform, no matter how clever, was always too “niche” and low volume for the mainstream software community to consider adopting in any meaningful way. And as we all know, the software community dwarfs the hardware community, and, more importantly, implements the code that enables our hardware brilliance to come to life for real end users. And software developers need high platform volumes for their software to be profitable. Hence, nothing ended up happening – until now.

At last we can see a way forward, thanks to the mass market adoption of traditional sequential CPUs combined with high-performance parallel processor-based GPUs in billions of mobile phones, tablets and other mass market products. At last, the software industry can move on (profitably) from the limitations of sequential processing into a world where processing scales linearly with silicon nodes, where processing efficiency per mW and per mm2 leaps to new heights, and where the sheer breadth of processing power at any one time from low-end to high-end is measured in orders of magnitude – all at mobile power consumption levels.

Heterogeneous processing – the killer combination of processors

This CPU + GPU combination is a true heterogeneous processor: multiple datapath architectures, each very different in ISA and capabilities, but working together under the control of a single application. But how do we program these new beasts? Well, we’re doing it today: we use graphics APIs at higher levels of abstraction to talk to the GPU – and it works extremely well. Not surprising really – haven’t we actually been writing these heterogeneous applications for decades already, thanks to our games consoles and GPU-enriched PCs?

HSA Foundation infographic

The HSA Foundation was formed as an open industry standards body to unify the computing industry around a common approach*

But now we want to do more. We want to use all that processing power in the GPU not just for graphics, but for other things like image processing, database searching, fluid dynamics – all sorts of things requiring processing horsepower way beyond what the best mobile CPUs can hope to deliver. How do we write applications like that? Do we need new languages?

No – we just need new abstractions and APIs such as Khronos’ OpenCL to help us. But we need more: since these are performance-driven applications, often with demanding real-time constraints such as user interactivity measured in milliseconds, we need to ensure every part of our heterogeneous processor is being used effectively.

Enter the HSA Foundation

That’s where technologies such as HSA come in. The HSA Foundation was created by industry leaders including AMD, Imagination, MediaTek, Qualcomm and Samsung, to ensure that applications can manage their execution not only on the CPUs and GPUs in a system, but also the infrastructure connecting them. By creating an open standard around how to connect CPUs to GPUs and other processors, we break the dependence of such advanced apps on any particular chip or CPU or GPU architecture. This enables the silicon industry to innovate by allowing multiple vendors to create competing solutions – fuelling the innovation the semiconductor industry is so famous for.

HSA Foundation

Since such heterogeneous SoCs (Systems on Chip) are expected to often be in mobile platforms with limited memory bandwidth and tight power budgets, how we schedule low-level tasks and assign them to various parts of a GPU or one of the CPU cores in the system is critical to an application utilising the full capabilities of any heterogeneous SoC. The APIs associated with HSA (and other forms of heterogeneous processing) will be key to enabling this.

Applications will also need to get ever more sophisticated in their “discovery” phase during startup, where they explore the system they are running on to find out what processing resources they have, what bandwidths are available, and much more.

Heterogeneous applications targeting tomorrow’s SoCs have a lot to cope with – problems HSA and other heterogeneous approaches will help to solve. But by solving them in an open, standards-based way, we’ll end up with a software industry that is highly motivated to deliver apps using these open standards. These apps will not only achieve functionality we’ve never dreamt of; they’ll also adapt in ever more ingenious ways to whatever resources they have available to them.

It’s another exciting decade ahead for the world of computing! Have a look at the HSA Foundation website and their recent blog articles to find out more and make sure you follow us on Twitter (@ImaginationPR, @GPUCompute and @HSAFoundation) to stay updated on the developments behind this exciting partnership.


* Image courtesy of AMD, all rights reserved.