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Computing At Chaos Manor:
April 5, 2007

The User's Column, April 2007
Column 321, part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

My apologies for being late with this. There were reasons, the chief being that I’ve done several thousand words on my latest novel with Larry Niven. Details over at the View From Chaos Manor. I will try to keep a tighter schedule in future, but weekly is weekly after all.

Apple’s 8-Core Computer

See this: Techtree: Mac Pros with 8 Cores Unleashed and this: Apple Mac Pro

We’ve always been interested in the multiple core trend as part of the coming era of computing plenty. I’ll tell this in the form of a conversation because that’s how it developed. It began with a note from Dan Spisak in the private conference I maintain for my advisors. Dan said

In case anyone is living under a rock, Apple released the Clovertown-based Mac Pro build option so you can now buy a Mac Pro with 8 cores. The option costs an additional $1498 so its really cost effective for those who make a living off of multi-threaded applications like 3d rendering and other visual effects work or video encoding.


I confess I found that exciting. So did everyone else. Peter Glaskowsky said:

Now you probably have Jerry wanting one.

Jerry, we'll make you a deal: you can buy a Mac Pro if Inferno 2 gets onto the New York Times bestseller list. That's fair, I think.

I note that clicking the right boxes on the order page on store.apple.com can run the price of the machine in a maximum realistic configuration up to $17,093.00. So the higher you get on the NYT list, the better a machine you can buy.

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Now all I have to do is negotiate that with my wife. This is a trend we have seen coming for a long time, and another illustration of Moore’s Law: exponentials work this way. It wasn’t that long ago that two-socket SMP systems were rare. The real question is, what do we do with all this computing power? Eric Pobirs said

Don't you boys go putting ideas in his head. Whatever would the man do with 8 processor cores? It's decadence, is what it is! And a gateway drug. Leads to personal render farms, is what it does. Yessiree.

I have an idea for a new app. A kind of long range calendaring program that list two dates for each item. First, the date on which the new wonder toy was released, and later, the date upon which it becomes so old and useless it's too much trouble to keep it set up for the amount of space it consumes.

How many years until 8 cores across two sockets seems a terribly quaint relic? I suspect it may come before anyone figures out how to make this useful for the average consumer. We're not just going to have tons of cores but structure them very differently, so the sub$1,000 8-core machine that appears at Best Buy in a few years is very different from this beast. It reminds me of the Speed racer storyline with the car engine so powerful no one can drive it, because, I'm not making this up, the sheer power has hallucinogenic effects.

Eric Pobirs

Which got my son Alex into the act:

Great line, Eric!

It also brings up the question: Besides renderheads, who's going to use all that there power? This is an eternal question (well, ok, in the last decade) which we have discussed at length, and for which I still don't have any decent answers.

This may also be one of the fastest Vista boxes on the market; it'll be interesting to see if it gets any traction on the Windows side of the street.

The obvious first answer would be gamers... Seeing all of the eye candy options inside "Company of Heroes" which I can't enable on my laptop reminded me of this. (There's also a serious cursor submarining problem on that game, at least on the USS Pavilion.) Certainly Adobe's various video apps are going to see some improvement, though if CNET’s test of their "unsanctioned" 8-core box are accurate, the performance increases are quickly diminishing:

c|net's 'The unofficial eight-core Apple Mac Pro'

This also begs the question of what Microsoft is going to do (and when) about multi-socket licensing. Unless there was a big change I didn't see, MS still limits desktop OSes to two sockets. This has pushed Windows render farms to run on Server 2003 (which may be a vanishingly small market...), an unsupported combo for many companies.

It also suggests that the ATI vs. Intel competition for CPU-to-CPU and CPU-to-system links is finally beginning to tell, since the crappy performance increase has to be in large part due to Intel's architecture limits. Or am I off-base? I'm sure this shy, retiring list of modest men will gently correct me if so.


Eric replied

I don't think two sockets is a serious limitation for desktops. This already takes us up to 8 cores, any one of which can run rings around some of the SMP hardware we were thrilled to have a few years ago. They let you have as many cores per socket as the chip companies offer.

And I don't think it makes much sense to run a Windows based render farm. Not unless Microsoft offers a licensing deal to enable such at lower cost. I vaguely recall they did some deals like that to try and build up new areas of business but it's a bit off the radar. While the workstation app should be more than satisfied with what can now be placed in two sockets, it makes a lot more sense for a mass of dedicated headless rendering stations to be running a stripped down Linux (or other highly customizable OS) that has just what is needed to execute the render app and talk to the storage system.

Microsoft made some noises a while back about promoting the embedded Windows framework for such uses, since the configurability is there, but the licensing cost would still be a big issue. Especially if the app has its own per socket license fee for the render farm. Desktop Windows is far less cost than Server Windows but across 100+ machines with no direct user interaction to favor the Windows app library, what would be the point?

Eric Pobirs

This raises the first of the interesting questions about computer plenty: what will happen to licensing? Microsoft at the moment goes by number of CPU’s; but that can’t last. If Linux has done nothing else, it has given us an alternative to that kind of licensing. One expects Microsoft to respond to that.

Multiple cores invite multiple virtual machines. There is no requirement that each of those virtual machines be running the same operating system. At the moment Parallels, the OS X application that runs virtual machines (including running Vista) on the new Macs, doesn’t support some of the fancier video processing cards; but that will certainly change. I have great confidence that a year won’t go by before Apple and Parallels work out a way to allow the hottest video and sound cards to work with Vista on Apple boxes.

Dan Spisak speculates

This seems like an easy solution to me:

8 cores == 4 2-core virtual machines

VM1 = Anti-Virus/Spam Filtering
VM2 = AD 2003 Domain Controller
VM3 = Print Server
VM4 = Exchange Server OR IIS server

Obviously doing this kind of setup means you'd want to layout each VM on its own SATA HD in the box so I/O doesnt become a blocking issue between busy VMs.

-Dan S.

That’s certainly one way to set up your virtual machines. I would include in VM1 the whole business of mail sorting by rules; indeed, the entire VM would be devoted to piggy old Outlook. Anyway, that’s one way to partition all that computer power.

The Apple 8-Core won’t be the last of these heroic systems. The era of computing plenty is upon us, and given the nature of exponentials, we’ll be up to our clavicles in gigacycles before you know it. Now we have to start thinking about what to do with all that computing power.

This also affects the entertainment industry. Computer power has changed the recording industry, breaking the monopoly that the Studios have had over recording artists. Now almost any artist can afford to have equipment more than good enough to record and edit a new work. Obtaining publicity is difficult, but there’s always the Internet, for both publicity by releasing free copies, and distribution through sales by downloading.

Now we are moving to a time when, for a few tens of thousands of dollars invested in equipment, one can record, render, and copy full visual performance art with special effects. How many years will it be before almost anyone who seriously wants to will be able to make full feature length computer graphics films of professional quality? And after that, blue screen movies of live actors with graphics added can’t be far behind. I suppose at first the rendering farms may be coops; but at the rate we are going, each artist owning systems capable of both creation and rendering can’t be many years away. I’d guess well before 2012 we’ll see a low cost work of the quality of Good Will Hunting done by people you never heard of until they burst on the scene in triumph.

This is going to change the entertainment world. I am doing a major essay on the future of publishing and copyright, but I’m still gathering data before I can recommend anything. Everything is changing.


My travel briefcase gets more full every on every trip. The latest addition is The Tornado, a Vista-compatible USB 2.0 file transfer system. About the size of a pack of playing cards, this contains two cables and software; plug this into two different computers and you can transfer files from one to the other. It Just Works.

When I go on trips I usually carry two computers, a TabletPC and a Lenovo T-series ThinkPad. I put it this way because I have both my older T-42p ThinkPad and a new T-60. They both Just Work. When I am on the road I sometimes want to transfer everything from the ThinkPad to a smaller TabletPC. Up to now I have used a Seagate 120 GB “paperback book” USB drive. That means transfer to the drive (thus making a backup copy), then from that to the other computer.

The Tornado doesn’t make the backup copy, but it does save that intermediate step. It’s small enough that it takes no real room in my travel case. Recommended.