Illinois home to new Microsoft- and Intel-funded parallel computing center

3/18/2008

ECE Staff Writer

Illustration of an Intel quad-core processor. Courtesy of Intel.
Illustration of an Intel quad-core processor. Courtesy of Intel.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign today announced a joint research endeavor with Microsoft Corporation and Intel Corporation that aims to enable commodity systems to make use of parallel computing techniques previously relegated to the realm of supercomputers. As a pioneer in parallel computing advances, Illinois is uniquely positioned to help usher in a new era of parallel computing for consumer systems that will enable drastically new applications for human-centric and environment-aware computing.

The five-year, $18 million Universal Parallel Computing Research Center (UCPRC) at Illinois brings together researchers in computer engineering and computer science to discover easy and accessible methods for enabling the multicore computing systems increasingly in use today to take better advantage of their processing capabilities.

"Multi- and many-core computing is becoming pervasive; client-focused mass market applications are now driving parallel programming," said Marc Snir, professor of computer science and co-director of the center. "We face a new challenge: one that places emphasis on productivity over high performance; and one that addresses the needs of the broad community of application developers. In such an environment, parallel programming must be accessible to all programmers."

A central research thrust will be the development of new applications that aim to dramatically improve the quality of life for the end user, but are not feasible with the computing power available on today’s clients. For example, future systems should not only assist with computational tasks, but also enhance our ability to interact with each other and with our environment using natural communication and visual interfaces. The center’s research will be driven by and will eventually enable such applications.

"We believe that most parallel programmers should be able to use simple, intuitive ways of expressing parallelism," said Wen-mei Hwu, professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-director of the center. "Future microprocessors will contain hundreds, and perhaps thousands of cores. While parallel languages must become simpler, hardware is becoming more complex. We will be researching ways to bridge this enlarging gap to enable client-focused applications of the future."

The center’s research activities are founded on the premise that advances in multicore computing will require a coordinated, multi-disciplinary effort that encompasses all components of the multicore system. The center brings together 22 faculty members in computer science and computer engineering to focus on several areas of research, ranging from new applications for multicore processors to new languages, programming environments, and architectures.

"We have a new opportunity and a new challenge for parallel computing today," said Sarita Adve, professor of computer science and director of research for the center. "The market is larger, so there is an opportunity to provide different programming solutions for different applications. The challenge is that these solutions must be supported by one, flexible hardware architecture and a few software system architectures. Our multi-disciplinary approach will be critical to provide this diversity for programmers and convergence for the system."

The UCPRC at Illinois is one of two such centers funded by Microsoft and Intel. The other center will be located at the University of California, Berkeley. This research alliance is the first joint industry and university research center of this magnitude in the United States focused on mainstream parallel computing. Twenty-five top tier institutions in the field of parallel computing research were evaluated for this program, with Illinois and Berkeley being selected to host.

"Illinois is to parallel computing as spring rain and soil are to corn. Just as corn won't grow without essential nutrients, the next generation of processors will not reach full performance without the attention of Illinois faculty," said Charles Zukoski, vice chancellor for research at Illinois. "We are proud to partner with Intel and Microsoft to advance a common agenda of enabling the latest in processor technology to take advantage of programming ideas that unleash the potential for dramatically enhanced performance and interaction."

"We are excited about working with the University of Illinois because its stellar faculty and students are global leaders in creating breakthroughs in parallel software and architecture," said Andrew Chien, vice president of the Corporate Technology Group and director of Intel Research. "Their excellence builds on a long tradition of excellence in parallelism which goes back over many decades."

"We are pleased to be working with the University of Illinois to solve one of the most complex issues facing the technology industry today," said Tony Hey, vice president of External Research at Microsoft Research. "By having the expertise of both industry and academia at our new research center, we are confident we will make great strides in this area and ultimately bring the benefits of parallel computing to consumers."

The UCPRC at Illinois is a joint research endeavor of the Department of Computer Science, the Coordinated Science Laboratory, and corporate partners Microsoft and Intel, with faculty support from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The center builds on a history of Illinois innovation in parallel computing that spans four decades. For more information, visit www.upcrc.illinois.edu.