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Stealthy startup Soft Machines launches virtual CPU cores that trounce traditional processors

Mark Hachman | Oct. 24, 2014
A well-funded chip startup, Soft Machines, is taking the popular but abstract concept of virtual machines and applying it to the chip level.

If it works — and Soft Machines claims it does — the differences could be dramatic. Soft Machines says that a one virtual-core, single-threaded VISC chip offers 1.7 times to 2.2 times the performance of a single-core application CPU. Put another way, a 32-bit 2 virtual-core (VC) chip with 1 Mbyte of cache generated an estimated 2.1 instructions per clock using the SPEC 2006 benchmark. A single-core Intel "Haswell" Core chip produced 1.39 instructions per clock.

If VISC was optimized for comparable performance but lower power, power could be cut by a quarter to a third of a traditional processor using a single thread, or about half the power using a double-threaded application, Soft Machines says.

VISC's secret sauce appears to be what the company calls a "global front end," some logic block that translates a single software thread into the virtual cores, and allocating two software threads into different "sizes" of virtual cores depending on the application's need. The company isn't divulging any details about that right now.

The technology prototype that Soft Machines will show will boot Linux, a UEFI BIOS, and run benchmarks on Linux, the company said. It will also boot the "Ice Cream Sandwich" flavor of Android, Android 4.0. Eventually, the company said, it hopes to build a system-on-a-chip with a 3D core, video,  and a DRAM controller.

Every so often a company comes along in the chip space promising to upend the apple cart. Transmeta did it, ushering in a new era of low-power computing. But the incumbents aren't willing to give up the old ways of doing things, either. Time will tell whether or not Soft Machines succeeds. 


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