IT intelligence: Multi-core processor

The multi-core processor is Robin Fisk's sixth of 10 technologies to watch.

If multi-tasking is a female virtue, PCs must be male. The 'brain' in your PC has its origins in the x86 processors that have powered PCs for decades. Older readers might recall the 286, 386 and 486-based PCs of the 90s - processors designed to run a very simple range of software and needing more and more power as graphical software such as Windows became dominant.

The original PCs were meant to be just that - personal computers. Linking them up was never part of the design. Neither were they intended to handle the complexity and power we now demand. Better processors were developed, but market demand and Microsoft's grip on the industry ensured that Intel-based x86 processors prevailed.

We take multi-tasking for granted: even when you're not using your PC, it checks for viruses and emails, the communication tool Skype listens out for calls and Windows monitors network connections and a hundred other things.

Single processors give the illusion of multi-tasking by concentrating on one process at a time - just like circus plate-spinning acts. So if the brain can do only one thing at a time, what's the solution? One answer is add more brains. That's why we get PCs and servers with multiple processor microchips. But these are costly.

The latest multicore processors from Intel and AMD can truly multi-task by combining two or more processors on one microchip. Power consumption remains lower than multiple chips and performance is almost as good. Now standard in all but the cheapest PCs, they pose a dilemma for the software manufacturers that license their server-based software on a per-processor basis: whether to start licensing on a per-core basis or not. For the time being, Microsoft is sticking to the per-processor model.

- Robin Fisk is managing director of software company Fisk Brett.

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