Multi-core Mania

When the market is slack, nothing succeeds better at tightening it up than promoting serial group-panic within the community. As an example of this, a wave of multi-core panic spread across the Internet about 18 months ago. IT organizations, it was said, urgently had to improve application performance by an order of magnitude in order to cope with rising demand. We wouldn’t be able to meet that need because we were at the “end of the road” with regard to step changes in processor power and clock speed. Multi-core technology was the only sure route to improving the speed of applications but, unfortunately, our current “serial” programming techniques, and the limited multithreading capabilities of our programming languages and programmers, left us ill-equipped to exploit it. Multi-core mania gripped the industry.

However, the fever was surprisingly short-lived. Intel’s “largest open-source effort ever” to provide a standard tool for writing multi-threaded code, caused little more than a ripple of interest. Various books, rushed out while the temperature soared, advocated the urgent need for new “multi-core-friendly” programming models, involving such things as “software pipelines”. Interesting as they undoubtedly are, they sit stolidly on bookshelves, unread.

The truth is that it’s simply not a big issue for the majority of people. Writing truly “concurrent” applications in languages such as C# is difficult, as you get very little help from the language. It means getting involved with low-level concurrency primitives, such as lock statements and so on.

Many programmers lack the skills to do this, but more pertinently lack the need. Increasingly, programmers work in a web environment. As long as these web applications are deployed to a load-balanced web farm, then page requests can be handled in parallel so all available cores will be used efficiently without the need for the programmer to be concerned with fine-grained parallelism.

Furthermore, the SQL Server engine behind these web applications is intrinsically “parallel”, and can handle and use effectively about as many cores as you care to throw at it. SQL itself is a declarative rather than procedural language, so it is fundamentally concurrent.

A minority of programmers, for example games programmers or those who deal with “embarrassingly parallel” desktop applications such as Photoshop, do need to start working with the current tools and ‘low-level’ coding techniques that will allow them to exploit multi-core technology. Although currently perceived to be more of “academic” interest, concurrent languages such as Erlang, and concurrency techniques such as “software transactional memory”, may yet prove to be significant.

For most programmers and for most web applications, however, the multi-core furore is a storm in a teacup; it’s just not relevant. The web and database platforms already cope with concurrency requirements. We are already doing it.

As always, we’d all love to hear what you think. The best contribution to the debate, added as a comment to this blog, will receive a $50 Amazon voucher.