The Future of Computing

The Future of Computing: From mainframes to microblades, farewell to GHz CPUs provides a nice overview of trends in CPU and system design. I have a couple of comments to add.

When in late 1950s computers became fast enough to relieve some of the coding burden from the shoulders of programmers high level languages were developed such as Ada, Algol, Fortran and C. While sacrificing code efficiency big time these high level languages allowed us to write code faster and thus extract more productivity gains from computers.

As time passed we kept sacrificing software performance in favor of developer productivity gains first by adopting object-oriented languages and more recently settling with garbage-collected memory, runtime interpreted languages and ‘managed’ execution. It is these “developer productivity” gains that kept the pressure on hardware developers to come up with faster and faster performing processors. So one may say that part of the reason why we ended up with gigahertz-fast CPUs was “dumb” (lazy, uneducated, expensive — pick your favorite epithet) developers.

Although true in some sense, the term developer productivity is a bit of a misnomer here. High(er) level tools and design methodologies do not just save developer time they make modern software possible. I seriously doubt that creating a web browser or any of the other huge pieces of software that we use everyday in assembly language is a tractable problem. Even if the problem could be brute forced, the resulting software would likely have a far higher defect rate than current software.

In the long term it makes little sense to burden CPU with DVD playback or SSL encryption. These and similar tasks should and with time will be handled completely by dedicated hardware that is going to be far more efficient (power and performance-wise) than CPU.

This completely ignores one of the most important aspects of fast general purpose CPUs, flexibility. For instance, a computer which relies on a MPEG decoder for video playback becomes useless when content is provided in another format. Continuing with this example, innovation in the area of video codecs would also become very difficult.

Despite the nitpicks, there is lot of good information in the article.

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