The Parallella project by Adapteva: the $99 supercomputer for everyone
Parallel computing for everyone promised with 16- and 64-core boards.
Chipmaker Adapteva wants to make parallel computing available to everyone, but there’s a good chance you’ve never even heard the company’s name. Founded in 2008, Adapteva focuses on building low-power RISC chips, which it sells to board manufacturers, and is trying to license its intellectual property to mobile processor vendors for use in smartphones.“We’re way down the food chain,” Adapteva CEO and founder Andreas Olofsson told Ars. But Adapteva wants to bring its technology directly to the people who would actually use it, with aKickstarter project to raise at least $750,000, and a stretch goal of $3 million.
Adapteva calls it “Parallella: A Supercomputer For Everyone,” a 16-core board hitting 13GHz and 26 gigaflops performance, costing $99 each. If the $3 million goal is hit, Adapteva will make a $199 64-core board hitting 45GHz and 90 gigaflops. (Adapteva seems to be counting GHz on a cumulative basis, adding up all the cores.) Both include a dual-core ARM A9-based system-on-chip, with the 16- and 64-core RISC chips acting as coprocessors to speed up tasks. The Adapteva architecture hits performance of 70 gigaflops per watt, and 25GHz per watt, the company says.
The Kickstarter page went live today. A pledge of $99 guarantees supporters a 16-core board by May 2013, while a pledge of $499 guarantees delivery by February. The current hardware is in the prototype phase.
Parallella devices would be fully functioning computers, shipping with an Ubuntu 11.10 port to ARM, with 1GB RAM, two USB 2.0 ports, 16GB of MicroSD storage, HDMI, and Gigabit Ethernet. An open source SDK would allow development of applications for Adapteva’s Epiphany architecture using C, C++, and OpenCL. Sizewise, Parallella would be 3.4” x 2.1’’, very similar to the Raspberry Pi.
There are obvious similarities between Parallella and hobbyist projects like Raspberry Pi, the $35 Linux computer, and the $30 Arduino, but Olofsson said Parallella will offer anywhere from 10 to 50 times the performance of Raspberry Pi, with the latter figure coming from the potential 64-core version. While it’s three times pricier than the Raspberry Pi, $99 is dramatically cheaper than most parallel computing platforms, he notes. Boards containing Adapteva chips that are already sold by partner company Bittware cost thousands of dollars.
From building embedded or mobile systems, writing new programming languages, scheduling algorithms, and parallel programming research, “there’s no limit to what people can do with [Parallella],” Olofsson said. “We’re hoping that the enthusiasts will get them first, the guy who is working on an open source project and there’s no platform they can use today that fits their needs.”
In addition to hobbyists and developers, Olofsson is betting that parallel computing is on the verge of becoming widespread in many types of business units. “There’s still this gap between the early adopter R&D guys and the mainline business units,” he said. “That’s where the challenge has been in penetrating quickly. I know parallel is going to become ubiquitous eventually, it’s just a matter of time, but I’d rather have it happen now instead of three years from now.”
The definition of “supercomputer” is somewhat nebulous. The slowest supercomputer on the Top 500list hits 61 teraflops. A cluster of 100 16-core Parallellas would cost $10,000 and provide 10 teraflops, Olofsson said. Whether or not you call it a supercomputer, it could be useful to many people.
Adapteva says it needs $3 million in Kickstarter funds to start producing 64-core versions of Parallella. While the 16-core chip is made using a 65-nanometer process, the 64-core chip is made using a more complicated and expensive 28-nanometer process.
Kickstarter recently started clamping down on hardware projects, saying, “Kickstarter is not a store.” But Adapteva worked with Kickstarter officials to make sure its project met the new guidelines preventing listings from resembling “traditional retail experiences.”
But why does Adapteva need a Kickstarter project at all? The company has raised $2.5 million in venture capital, but Olofsson says that’s “very low for a semiconductor company. … Our R&D budget is probably 1/1000th of Intel’s. To pull this off, we need millions of dollars. We’ve been talking to VCs, but for them the semiconductor startup model doesn’t work anymore. They don’t get a good return on investment.”
Although the Parallella boards are based on Adapteva’s existing chip architecture, raising lots of money is the only way to hit the $99 price point, because of tooling costs and the price of factory production at Global Foundries, Olofsson said. And that low price is key to making the project a success.
“Traditionally, from studying the supercomputing market, it’s almost always limited by cost,” Olofsson said.