Intel's Nehalem Provides Boost for Single and Multi-Core Transcoding Tools

Since many transcoding tools are still single-core, single-processor based, common wisdom has been to stay away from the added expense of multi-core machines and instead use numerous lower-priced systems.

Even so, the push toward more and more cores has been the dominant trend with CPU manufacturers like AMD and Intel. But for those who still use single-core applications, Intel's announcement today should provide additional benefit.

Intel announced today that its Xeon 5550 45 nanometer (nm) microarchitecture, which has been dubbed "Nehalem" during previous press events, will address both applications that are multi-core, multi-processor enabled as well as those applications that are still single-core or single-thread enabled.

[Jan Ozer tested Nehalem's performance with Rhozet's Carbon Coder and On2's Flix Pro; see his article Hewlett Packard's Nehalem-based Z400 and Z800 speed encoding performance.]

Noting that many workstation users don't use multi-core applications, and therefore may wonder what all the fuss is about for multi-core enabled applications, Intel has set out on a concerted education effort to address the move toward multi-core applications.

"Many people don't realize that over 10 per cent of Intel's engineers are software engineers," said Kirk Skaugen, vice president of the digital enterprise group and general manager of the server platforms group for Intel Corporation. "Intel is making a concerted effort to help software developers learn how to thread code."

[Click here to listen to a podcast interview with Skaugen about the Nehalem processor.]

What Skaugen means by "threading code" is that Intel is pulling the old hyperthreading—and even older Turbo mode—back into the mix. Nehalem processors have up to 16 threads, at two threads per core, meaning that even a single-core application can take the intermediate step of moving toward a threaded programming process, even if it does not take advantage of multiple cores.

Beyond hyperthreading, though, Intel's Turbo Boost is designed to automatically increase the frequency of a particular core, assuming that all cores on a processor are not being fully utilized at a given moment.

This technology is a nod to the myriad applications that have yet to move to multi-core enablement. Somewhat akin to the old Turbo button on 286 and 386 machines from the early 1990s, Turbo increases the frequency of a single core from 3.2 GHz to approximately 3.44 GHz. It's not overclocking, and it is done automatically, reverting to its standard frequency when the other cores are needed for a multi-core application, but the net advantage is a boost in processing speed for products like the single-core transcoding tools mentioned above.

For those software applications willing to take advantage of multiple cores, Intel has eliminated a key bottleneck, the Front Side Bus, and placed the memory closer to the processors. Intel calls this new memory technology QuickPath, combining an integrated memory controller with a memory architecture that lets each independent processing core access specific memory for a much faster transmission between the core and its assigned memory.

Nehalem processors, according to Intel, are designed to support for 2-8 cores and up to 16 threads per processor. In addition, with the move toward virtualization occurring in servers, and trending toward workstations that might choose to run multiple instances of a program or operating system, Intel has chosen to allow virtualization to every Intel chip, including graphics and network cards.

"In order to optimize the throughput of a virtual machine, for instance," said Skaugen, "one of several network interface cards (NICs) could be assigned to that particular virtual machine. This allows a virtual machine instance that needs significant data throughput via the NIC to use that NIC exclusively when the virtual machine is running."

This bodes well for server-based virtualization but what about workstations that are used to created rich media content?

"While server applications have benefited from symmetric multi-processing in the past," said Skaugen, "we didn't want to leave the workstation platform behind in just the dual-core world. So Nehalem processors in the workstation are also capable of virtualization, Turboboost, QuickPath and the other technologies I've named."

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