20 Oct 2009

Smoking, Hairy Golfballs

I was flipping though the channels on TV earlier and came across a new addition to the local lineup – something called The Research Channel. Apparently it broadcasts recordings of presentations by various notable people on a variety of subjects. The recording that caught my eye was Behind the Code with Jim Gray. Gray, at the time of the interview (2005) of Microsoft Research but formerly of IBM, Tandem, and DEC, had some interesting comments about databases, parallel processing, and the future of hardware.

At one point (about two thirds of the way through the video), he describes future processors as probably being “smoking, hairy golfballs.” The ‘smoking’ part is because they’ll be hot, consuming and dissipating large amounts of power in order to run at high clock speeds; hairy because they’ll need as many I/O pins as possible, on all sides; golfballs, because that’s about the maximum size you can achieve before, at very fast clock speeds, you start to run into the “event horizon” (in his words) of the speed of light and lose the ability to propagate information from one side of the processor to the other in one clock cycle.

He didn’t give a timeline on this prediction so I’m not sure it’s fair to call it either correct or incorrect just yet, but it’s interesting. The ‘smoking’ part actually seems to have gone in the opposite direction since 2005; power dissipation has gone down from the highs of the Pentium IV and IBM G5, but it’s possible it could creep back up again if something stops the current trend. He seems to have been right, at least in a limited sense, about ‘hairy’: a look at new processor sockets shows a definite upward trend, with Intel’s newest at more than 1500 pins – common sockets in 2005 would have had less than half that. They’re still all on the bottom of the package, though. The ‘golf ball’ maximum on size is more theoretical, but I don’t think anything has happened recently that provides cause to dismiss it.

After watching the segment, I pulled up the Wikipedia page on Gray, curious to see what he was up to today. Unfortunately, it was at that point when I remembered why his name seemed so familiar: he disappeared while solo sailing off the coast near San Francisco, and despite a massive crowdsourced search effort, he was never found. An sad and unfortunate end for a very interesting guy.

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