Tuesday, December 20, 2005

X-Mas List Item #5: Any Katamari PC Component

In order to get me this gift, Quantum Future Santa, I'm sending you to a somewhat less probable future. I will probably never find myself there.

But I might. Let me explain so you know what the heck I'm talking about.

Speedbumps on the road laid by Moore's Law – especially excessive heat – have pushed manufacturers to push chips outward rather than inward. We are seeing many new dual-core chips. Computers with two dual-core processors are in the works.

Nowhere is the new multicore mentality more pronounced than in the new generation of gaming consoles. The Xbox360 has three cores that can each act as two, handling up to six “threads” of code simultaneously. The Cell processor under the hood of the upcoming Play Station3 has eight separate cores connected to a general purpose CPU that can act as two, for a total of 10 simultaneous “threads.”

I'm emphasizing the threads, because from the progarmmer's standpoint, this multithreading means much more than the details of the hardware itself. Historically, most programs could be written with the assumption that a single very fast processor would handle each piece of the program in order. (In actuality, smart processors rearrange small groups of instructions for greater speed, but they send the results back in the original order, maintaining the illusion.)

The new multicore systems can run simple programs just fine. But to harness the power of extra cores programmers must write their software in such a way that it can split tasks up into different threads. Some coders have been doing this for a long time. Many more have not.

The ones that have not tend to be the ones writing software for personal computers like yours.

But we can hope that, before long, nearly all software will take advantage of as few or as many cores as it can find. At this point, the Katamari PC becomes an interesting possibility.

The Katamari PC is the promiscuous country cousin of the corporate 'blade server'. Your current PC is basically a single motherboard with slots for a single CPU, a few strips of memory, and a few other addons. A 'blade rack', on the other hand, acts lie a giant grandmother board that can hold a large number of compatible motherboard 'blades' while coordinating power, communication, and cooling. When a corporation with a blade server needs more power, memory, or storage capacity, they don't go out and buy a whole new system. They just plug in some more blades. Thanks in part to multi-threaded programming, the results are immediately felt.

What if we could do this at home, with smaller components and an even more flexible arrangement? What if instead of a bunch of chips in a single metal box, we had packets of PC functionality that could be linked together ad infinitum?

Each packet would be built around a universal pipeline through which power, data, and ventilation would be received and transmitted to adjacent bricks. Some packets would be specialized: more cores, memory, cooling, etc.. Some might have a little of everything.

I call this the Katamari PC after the video game 'Katamari Damacy', in which the player must grow a gigantic ball of debris by snowballing anything and everything in its path. A Katamari PC would allow people to upgrade by endlessly adding to their existing components instead of replacing them.

I thought about calling this a 'Lego PC', a term I've heard on other occasions. But 'Lego' implies a single proprietary format for every brick. Your Apple bricks might only connect with other Apple bricks in a lego PC. Acer to Acer, Dell to Dell. Amen.

The Katamari PC is more flexible. It specifies the architecture of the pipeline and nothing else. If you want to connect ugly Dell bricks to stylish Apple ones, you can. If you want to keep your 300GB doorstop running alongside your holographic petabyte crystal, you can.

Is this an efficient way to operate? Not really. Not every type of program benefits from multiple cores. Some types of old gear tend to hog space and electricity compared to new gear. And every now and then the pipeline design itself would need an upgrade.

But the Katamari PC would be fun! You could build your own home supercomputing clusters with ease! You could arrange your computer into fun shapes that fit in unlikely places! Upgrades could be sold in the checkout line as impulse purchases! (They would sell like hot cakes, too, to hapless users compensating for their growing burdens of viruses and adware.)

Is Katamari likely? Sadly, I don't think so. Manufacturers would have difficulty agreeing on a common standard. And while they would love selling more upgrades, the major brands would miss selling you a complete machine every few years whether you need it or not. (They could probably keep doing this in the portable market, though, where beauty and compactness command a premium.)

Still, if you could bring me back just one piece of Katamari, Santa, it would make a stupendous souvenir from a geeky future that might have been.


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