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ACM TechNews
January 26, 2007

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Welcome to the January 26, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Researchers Go Molecular in Design of a Denser Chip
New York Times (01/25/07) P. A16; Chang, Kenneth

In an achievement that could pave the way for Moore's law to be extended beyond the next 10 or 20 years, researchers at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Los Angeles, have developed the densest memory chip ever built. The chip measures about one-2,000th of an inch on each side, about the size of a white blood cell, and can hold 160,000 bits of information. Although the chip is far from deployable, the process by which it was created could potentially be scaled up to a realistic manufacturing process. "Our goal always was to develop a manufacturing technique that works at the molecular scale," said Cal Tech chemistry professor James R. Heath. "It's a scientific demonstration, but it's a sort of a stake in the ground." The density of bits on the chip is greater than that of today's chips by a factor of 40, and Heath believes that enhancements in this technique could lead to an additional increase in density by a factor of 10. The chip's molecular switches, belonging to the rotaxanes class of molecules, are shaped like dumbbells with rings that slide between the two ends of the bar, representing ones and zeros. The researchers etched 400 parallel wires, less than a millionth of an inch wide each, deposited a layer of vertically-oriented molecular switches on top of them, and then placed another layer of 400 wires on top of this layer of switches, turned 90 degrees from the bottom layer of wires. Each bit of information is stored at a crossing point between two perpendicular wires, where about 100 switches are contained. When the chip was tested, only 30 percent of the bits could be made to work, and the switches broke after being flipped 10 times, but the chip could still be used to read and write information. As the project is meant to simply be a demonstration, "We're just happy it works," says Heath.
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Bush Wants H-1B Visa Cap Hike
Computerworld (01/25/07) Thibodeau, Patrick

In a speech to DuPont employees this week, President Bush called for a raise in the federal cap on H-1B visas and expressed his desire to work with Congress on the matter. "I understand that we need to make sure that when a smart person from overseas wants to come and work in DuPont, it's in our interests to allow him or her to do so," said Bush. In 2006, he asked Congress for an increase in the number of H-1Bs available each year, but the measure did not succeed. Material prepared by the White House as a supplement to the recent State of the Union Address, which did not mention H-1Bs, said, "Such a program will serve the needs of our economy by providing a lawful and fair way to match willing employers with willing foreign workers to fill jobs that Americans have not taken." In response to this statement, IEEE VP Ron Hira said the IEEE "wholeheartedly endorse[s] this principle. But the H-1B program does not meet it." As the H-1B system stands, "employers do not have to search for Americans, and can prefer an H-1B [visa holder] over an American citizen or green card holder," added Hira. Congress is expected to debate legislation to increase the H-1B cap, but it is uncertain whether any action will be taken.
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U.S. Firms Poised to Ramp Up R&D Spending
Wall Street Journal (01/25/07) P. A20; Naik, Gautum

The U.S. will see increases in both private investment and government spending on R&D this year, maintaining the nation's international lead, although changes may be needed to preserve this lead into the future, concludes a new report from Battelle Memorial Institute and R&D Magazine. The report says that U.S. companies are expected to spend about $219 billion on R&D in 2007, a 3.4 percent increase from last year's $212 billion, and federal contribution to R&D is expected to be around $98.3 billion, a 1.8 percent increase from last year's $96.6 billion. Electronics, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, software, semiconductors, and aerospace are expected to receive the most attention. "The U.S is going through a period where it's beginning to recover" from the 1 percent or 2 percent annual R&D growth it had been witnessing since the early 1990s, says Battelle senior analyst Jules Duga. He expects the "next few years" to see annual growth rates rise to 3 percent or 4 percent. The U.S. leads all other countries in R&D investment, with 64 percent more spending in the sector than second place China, but the aging of U.S scientists and engineers, the lack of government spending on schools, and increasing foreign competition will most likely present challenges to U.S dominance. Recent years have seen large portions of U.S. R&D money go to the development of high-tech anti-terror tools, and the coming years are expected to see the energy sector receive a growing portion of R&D money. China, which is spending a great deal on education, has increased R&D spending at an annual rate of 17 percent. In 2007, Battelle predicts that 5 percent of U.S. industrial R&D will be outsourced. "We'll need a mental change to acknowledge that unlike 20 years ago, we're not going to be dominant in every field," Duga says.
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State of the Union Speech Light on Tech
InternetNews.com (01/24/07) Mark, Roy

Although President Bush's State of the Union Address this week did not focus on any specific technological issues, he expressed the importance of technology to several concerns. Improved information technology, Bush said, is needed to "reduce costs and medical error" in health care; he called technology "the way forward" in exploring alternative source of energy; spoke of the need for "new infrastructure and technology" to improve border control; and said "We can make sure our children are prepared for the jobs of the future and our country is more competitive by strengthening math and science skills." Bush also mentioned the need for Congress to have "a serious, civil, and conclusive debate" on immigration reform, although he made no mention of H-1B visas, of which all 65,000 allotted for 2007 have already been used. Also left out of the speech was the previously called for "universal, affordable access for broadband," government funding of research, and R&D tax credit reform to encourage private R&D investment. However, the President's positive attitude toward technology was well received by industry groups. The Business Software Alliance's Karen Knutson says, "Technology is such an underpinning for everything he talked about. There were some pretty good things in there, particularly about the need to focus on math and science education." Several other groups praised Bush's acknowledgement of the role technology plays in energy concerns. "This strong commitment will continue the bipartisan progress we are making to provide greater energy security, global competitiveness and enhanced protection for our environment," said TechNet CEO Lezlee Westine.
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Questions Remain in D-13 Undervote Controversy
Bradenton Herald (FL) (01/25/07) Marsteller, Duane

A recent study by electronic voting experts has concluded that the cause of the undervote in Florida's 13th Congressional District election may not be found without a thorough investigation of the voting machines involved. The race's location on the ballot could be partially to blame, although machine failure is still a possibility, according to Cornell professor of government Walter Mebane, who conducted the study with Stanford University computer science professor David Dill. The report also says that "personalized electronic ballot" cartridges used to operate the machines could have caused the undervote, and that an above-average frequency of "invalid vote" error messages were found on machines that showed high undervote rates, displaying the possibility of malfunction. "The situation is complicated," Mebane says. "It's hard to say, 'Here's the one thing that's the origin of the undervotes.'" Democrat Christine Jennings, who lost by only 369 votes although 18,000 ballots had no vote for the race, believes the report proves her stance that the situation can only be resolved by an independent study of the machines' source code. However, Mebane and Dill said that even such a study might not provide conclusive answers. "It is an unfortunate fact that no feasible amount of testing or examination of modern computer systems can rule out machine malfunctions, which are often subtle and unreproducible," the report says. For information on ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Computing Awarded NSF Grant to Broaden CS Pipeline
Georgia Institute of Technology (01/23/07)

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $2 million grant to the College of Computing at Georgia Tech to develop programs that will help get more students involved in computer science. The grant from the NSF's Broadening Participation in Computing Initiative targets students at every educational level, as well as from historically underrepresented groups, with hopes of attracting more undergraduate and graduate students to computer science programs. The programs that Georgia Tech creates will serve as a model for developing larger programs across the country. They could include partnerships with youth organizations at the state and local level, mentorship programs for college students, workshops to improve the educational approach of computer science programs, assistance with curriculum ideas, and improving the communication of the results of new methods to programs that are interested in changing their curriculum. "In anticipation of the expansive and extensive impact that technology will continue to have on our culture and society, it is imperative that educators engage a broader base of potential computer science students, particularly women and minorities, through more contextualized and appealing methods and practices," says Georgia Tech professor Mark Guzdial. "With this grant, the College of Computing at Georgia Tech has an excellent opportunity to integrate a new and highly-creative approach to computer science education across the learning spectrum--from kindergarten to college, and beyond."
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Some Vista, Office Innovations Spring From MS Research
eWeek (01/24/07) Galli, Peter

Microsoft Research played a key role in the creation of several Vista and Office 2007 features, including Vista's desktop search, Sidebar, and SuperFetch, as well as Office's ribbon-based user interface. Susan Dumais, principal researcher of Microsoft Research's Adaptive Systems and Interaction Group, developed a prototype for Vista's desktop search feature, which was distributed to 3,000 Microsoft employees, allowing Dumais and her team to understand the challenges associated with the information retrieval project, "such as how users know a lot of information about what they are searching for and often remember specific characteristics," she says. Sidebar, which displays customizable "gadgets" on the desktop, began as a Microsoft Research prototype called Sideshow. Vista's SuperFetch, which is designed to know what applications a user opens most frequently and in what order so it can prepare them for use, was a result of principal researcher and research area manager for Microsoft Research's Adaptive Systems and Interaction group Eric Horvitz's goal of making operating systems understand users as well as context. Horvitz says that machine learning allows SuperFetch to have "encoded, deep within the system, a sense for the frustration that people may feel when they wait for a response." Office's ribbon interface was the product of the Human Centered Computing group's and the Visualization and Interaction Research Group's meeting with user researchers to simplify the Office interface. An analysis of volunteer users into what features were used most often and what features were used in conjunction others provided the groups with the information needed to create the ribbon.
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Sentimental Journey
CIO (01/23/07) Schindler, Esther

Businesses are beginning to see value in software that can understand and respond to human emotion. Some programs that understand the way a user is feeling could help them make better decisions, and others could improve customer service methods. W3C Emotion Incubator Group Dr. Marc Schroder believes that if computing does not become more "natural," the average user will no longer be able to handle increasingly intricate interaction with a machine, referring to the natural cues we can take just by looking at someone's face before they say something. Software has been developed that can detect emotion in a human voice or in text, and businesses use these systems to detect levels of emotions, or choose proper wording, for example. The Human-Machine-Interaction Network on Emotion (HUMAINE) research community aims to establish the groundwork for software that can understand, replicate, or influence human emotion, called "emotion-oriented systems." Schroder says the group focuses on "input, reasoning, and output of a run-time system, and also annotation of recordings of human behavior, which can be analyzed, e.g. by machine-learning algorithms." The group expects to produce an XML-based standard representation format. Several research projects are developing consumer devices that make emotion part of the information being transmitted, through text messages whose color changes based on the sender's emotional state that is picked up by biosensors and other sources, for example. IBM Almaden Research Center manager of cognitive computing Dharmendra Modha says that data management has dealt with structured data in the past, but as the processing of unstructured data such as human emotion becomes a reality, the goal will for computer science to put together the architecture of the mind.
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Novel Computed Imaging Technique Uses Blurry Images to Enhance View
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (01/22/07) Kloeppel, James E.

University of Illinois researchers have established a computational image-forming method for optical microscopy that is able to quickly generate clear 3D images from data that is out of focus. The method, known as Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Microscopy (ISAM), is expected to do for optical microscopy what magnetic resonance imaging did for nuclear magnetic resonance. "ISAM can perform high-speed, micron-scale, cross-sectional imaging without the need for time-consuming processing, sectioning and staining of respected tissue," said ISAM paper author Stephen Boppart, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, of bioengineering, and of medicine at UI. Using an understanding of the physics of light-scattering in a sample, the technique uses a broad-spectrum light source as well as a spectral interferometer to produce crisp, reconstructed images. Boppart says ISAM has the potential to help the field of cell and tumor biology and to allow for imaging to replace biopsy in clinical diagnosis. While 3D optical microscopy techniques used today need the instrument's focal plane to be scanned through the area being examined, ISAM unscrambles the light from out-of-focus image planes, expanding the region of the image that is in focus to provide a high-resolution image. "We have demonstrated that the discarded information can be computationally reconstructed to quickly create the desired image," said UI research scientist Daniel Marks. In the future, ISAM could allow micron-scale imaging for large amounts of tissue.
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It Just Comes Naturally
San Francisco Chronicle (01/25/07) P. C1; Saraker, Pia

Despite the small percentage of jobs in the technology industry held by African Americans, and the even smaller percentage for executive positions in the industry, Michael Fields, CEO of Kana, a software company, remains dedicated to seeing greater diversity in the sector. An African American himself, Fields has been president of Oracle's domestic operations and started his own software company, OpenVision. He has purchased an office building to dedicate to female- and minority-run businesses, set up a training program at the College of Alameda, and is currently working to provide scholarships to students in the Virgin Islands that are interested in technology. According to the 2000 U.S Census, African Americans make up 12 percent of the population but only 6.7 percent of computer science professionals, 3.9 percent of engineers, and 7.5 percent of engineering and science technicians, and these numbers are an increase from the 1990 census. Wayne Hicks, a former president of Black Data Professionals, which is dedicated to bringing more African Americans into technology, blames these percentages on low graduation rates and lack of exposure to technology jobs. Both Hicks and Fields feel that given the small number of African Americans in the industry, young African Americans do not have much of a network to tap into, but as more enter the industry, the youth will be given greater opportunities. Hicks points out that as technology changes, and as more opportunities arise in more fields, "Technology is [a] piece of business instead of off to the side, which means there's lots of opportunity. It's not just strictly, 'Can you write a program?'" While Hicks does acknowledge racism, he says it is no more of a barrier than in any other field.
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'Sniffer-Bot' Algorithm Helps Robot Seek Scents
New Scientist (01/24/07) Inman, Mason

Researchers in France have developed an algorithm that could allow robots to find the source of a faint scent even in the midst of air turbulence, much like a moth does. Massimo Vergassola and some of his colleagues at the Pasteur Institute in Paris tested their simple algorithm in a virtual environment and found that it not only allowed a virtual robot to successfully track and find the source of a scent, but it caused the virtual robot to move in complex back and forth sweeping motions, s-curves, and spirals that closely resemble the way a moth tracks a scent. The algorithm uses information received from the scent itself as well as information received when the scent is not detected, striking a balance between heading directly toward the point where it guesses the scent is coming from and wandering around collecting information but not making any progress toward the source. Vergassola says the algorithm could be implemented in an actual robot or be used for other applications that involve searching without much information, such as detecting the best paths for information to be sent through a network. This research "provides a new framework for understanding a large and significant class of problems encountered in real world situations," says the University of Pennsylvania's Alan Gelperin. He adds that by adding instruments that could gather information about the airflow around a robot, the algorithm could even be improved.
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Tanenbaum Outlines His Vision for a Grandma-Proof OS
Computerworld Australia (01/24/07) Dahdah, Howard

Computers should have a lifetime failure of zero, just like other electrical appliances such as TVs or stereos, according to operating systems expert Dr. Andrew Tanenbaum, a professor of computer science at Vrije University in Holland. Speaking at the linux.conf.au last week, Tanenbaum said operating system software would need to be smaller to improve the reliability of today's software. Adding unnecessary features only makes software slower and buggy, he stressed, while noting that RAID arrays and ECC memory as hardware devices are capable of correcting errors on the fly. "So I think we need to go in the direction of self-healing software," explained Tanenbaum. The creator of the MINIX 3 operating system, Tanenbaum said the code in the OS kernel should be limited, and also modular, and he suggested that components such as drives and file systems should be isolated to prevent any problems from spreading. MINIX makes use of many of the features Tanenbaum discussed, and Linux is based on it. "Maybe the direction Linux could go would be [as] the system that is ultra reliable, that works all the time and has not got all the problems that you get in Windows," Tanenbaum noted.
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Report: Among Tech Execs, Men Face Gender Wage Gap
eWeek (01/24/07) Perelman, Deborah

The average difference between the wages of men and women in technology jobs declined from 10.9 percent in 2005 to 9.7 percent last year, and some female professionals now earn more than their male counterparts for some job titles, according to a new report from Dice, a career site for IT and engineering professionals. Female help desk professionals made 4.8 percent more than males by averaging $40,937, female technical writers made 2.5 percent more at $73,816, and female IT executives (CEOs, CIOs, chief technology officers, vice presidents, and directors) made 1.4 percent more at $109,912. Women between the ages of 18 and 24 earned about as much as men of the same age ($41,700 compared to $41,722), but the wage gap increased to 7.6 percent between 25 and 29 years of age, and to at least 10 percent for all age groups over 30. Overall, IT salaries rose 5.2 percent as the average increased from $69,700 to $73,308. The greatest gains were enjoyed by professionals who specialize in enterprise resource planning ($96,161), Sarbanes-Oxley compliance ($91,998), and customer relationship management ($90,499). Entry-level salaries rose 13.1 percent to $42,414, in an effort to attract more workers to the industry. The best pay was found in Silicon Valley ($90,310), followed by Boston ($80,308), New York ($80,006), and Baltimore/Washington, D.C. ($79,911).
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The Open Source Initiative Still Lives
Linux-Watch (01/23/07) Vaughan-Nichols, Steven J.

Despite recent silence, the Open Source Initiative (OSI) has been rather active, evaluating open source licenses and platforms, and regaining its role as an open source authority. Begun in 1998, OSI had the final word on what was truly "open source," but in following years the group began to see new licenses, such as ungoverned "vanity licenses" that companies would grant themselves, and Mozilla Public Licenses (MPLs), as hindrances to open source development. In the opinion of many, OSI must approve a license for it to be considered a true open source license. Additionally, "badgeware" attached to MPL licenses, which prominently displayed the logo of the open source company responsible for the code being used, caused additional criticism of these licenses. OSI has never stopped meeting, and results have recently been seen. "Somewhere around a half-dozen licenses have been withdrawn. The job isn't done--the board still has some policy decisions to make," says OSI co-founder and former leader Eric S. Raymond, who left for a while but has returned to the board. As signs of success, new members have been added to the board, and Intel, Sun, and several other companies have dropped their own OSS licenses. OSI promises to be more open in its future proceedings, citing difficulty in the deployment of its new Drupal-based Web site, which will include minutes from board meetings. "Open source is a big buzzword again now, and yes there are those who are trying to understand how they can embroider over the edges of open source to achieve business goals nearly but perhaps not perfectly aligned with the spirit of the Open Source Definition," says OSI secretary/treasurer and Intel senior director of open source strategy Danese Cooper. She encourages those who have disputes with OSI to join the current dialog.
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'Storm Worm' Trojan Horse Surges On
CNet (01/22/07) Espiner, Tom

Security firms are dismayed by the aggressive Trojan horse that was unleashed on computers around the world last weekend. They do not know who is behind the attack, from where it was launched, and are still trying to understand the extent of the botnet associated with the Trojan "Storm Worm." According to antivirus vendor F-Secure, Storm Worm started Friday as an email about storms in Europe, which sought to get recipients to download an executable file to read the news story, and six subsequent attacks over the weekend similarly tried to woo readers with news such as a missile test by China or the death of Fidel Castro. F-Secure adds that each version of the emails was capable of updating itself, which prevented most antivirus programs from detecting it. "The bad guys are putting a lot of effort into it--they were putting out updates hour after hour," says Mikko Hypponen, director of antivirus research at F-Secure. The compromised machines, possibly hundreds of thousands of home computers, were turned into zombie machines for a botnet that acted like a peer-to-peer network, in that it has no centralized control. Attackers tend to control botnets through a central server, which can be located, ultimately allowing zombie networks to be taken down and destroyed.
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Even Experts Have Difficulty Understanding Web 3.0
Daily Yomiuri (Japan) (01/23/07) P. 18; Jerney, John

Though there has been a considerable amount of talk about Web 3.0 and what it will actually entail, there has been little agreement. Many would say that Web 3.0 will bring meaning to the content and the links of the Internet, by incorporating a certain level of artificial intelligence, which has been called the Semantic Web; rather than searching for information, users could ask the Semantic Web specific technical questions and get concise answers without being forced to look through hundreds of pages. Volksware President John Jerney believes such a vision of the Semantic Web is unrealistic, as it would necessitate a "vast change in the way we store information on the Web" and "a quantum leap in our understanding of cognition and reasoning." Instead, Jerney proposes an idea he calls the Executable Web, wherein normal people could "aggregate, process, and visually interpret information from divergent sources with the same level of ease as they start a blog today." This "read-write" Web would be built on currently available technology, whereas the Semantic Web is based on technology that is still in various stages of the research phase. In order for the Executable Web to become a reality, a user module and interface is needed to enable the foundational infrastructure to make sense to the everyday user. Jerney points out that given the proliferation of mobile devices, network hosting applications make perfect sense, as they could lead to the combination and simplification of mobile devices needed to "leverage the power of the Web."
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Preserving Printed and Digital Heritage
BBC News (01/22/07) Geist, Michael

Governments should take a proactive role in the preservation of printed and digital publications through the construction of libraries, and University of Ottawa Internet law professor Michael Geist offers several suggestions for achieving this. Revising legal deposit regulations to account for online publications and to handle concerns brought to the fore by digital technologies that could potentially hinder access is an action taken by the Canadian government, which Geist cites as "a model for preserving online publications." Three years ago the government empowered the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) to sample Web pages as part of an initiative to preserve notable Canadian Web sites, and new rules were introduced this year in consideration of online publications and DRM-encoded books. Under the new regulations, a publisher is defined as anyone "who makes a publication available in Canada that the person is authorized to reproduce or over which the person controls the content," while online publications are ascribed a unique title, a specific author or authoring body, a specific date, and the purpose of public consumption. Many publishers who release their content solely online will be required to start submitting their works to the LAC, but there is no requirement for all publishers to submit electronic versions of printed documents, and Geist argues that such a requirement should be a subject of future consideration. Another new rule requires publishers to decrypt encrypted data in a publication and to eliminate or deactivate systems that restrict or limit access to the publication prior to LAC submission. Additionally, the LAC must be supplied with a copy of the software and technical information needed for accessing the publication, as well as any metadata connected to the online publication.
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IEEE 802.11n Working Group Approves Draft 2.0
InfoWorld (01/22/00) Schwartz, Ephraim

IEEE 802.11n version 2.0 has been approved by its working group, with all contending parties that had delayed the process having been satisfied, and will now be voted on by the end of March 2007 and most likely modified into version 3.0, which would then go through a lengthy balloting process and finally reach publication around October 2008. The new version will "only require a minor firmware upgrade for complete compatibility" with pre-802.11n products, according to working group member Bill McFarland. The biggest change concerned the implementation of the 40 MHz channel, which has been modified to accommodate older 2.4 GHz band devices. Two 20 MHz bands will be used in the new spec, which will scan its environment for legacy devices that may not be able to comprehend the wider bandwidth, and use a single 20 GHz band for them. Although this feature would cause slower performance, the new spec's Multimedia In Multimedia Out (MIMO) technology will speed up performance. Another change will let an 802.11n device check to see if both channels are free before any data is sent, and a third change will allow devices to send signals using WLAN to indicate that 40 MHz mode should not be used. The new spec will allow higher throughput (approximately 129 Mbps real world) than today's standard and a range that is 50 percent greater; also, multiple antennas will allow fragmented signals to be stitched together, eliminating places indoors where signals are often dropped.
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Custom Processing--Transcript
ACM Queue (01/07) Vol. 4, No. 10, Vizard, Michael

IBM chief scientist Peter Hofstree discusses system on a chip (SOC) and related design issues and the potential impact of the cell processor on the SOC marketplace. "I think in many ways the system on a chip era has already arrived and cell I think is an example of that and maybe one of the more clear examples," says Hofstree. He explains that the cell's ability to capture a number of diverse market segments fuels the move toward integration and SOC, and notes that we are midway through the tipping point. "It ... will drive us towards specialization of cores, where different cores will be optimized for different functions, and in the case of cell, a core that is focused on the control function and then another one that is focused on the compute function," projects Hofstree. He describes a cell as a microprocessor equipped with an integrated memory controller, lots of bandwidth, an on-chip coherence fabric, and an IO controller. Hofstree foresees cell-based SOC designs eventually becoming the most prevalent way for people to construct next-generation dedicated computers, at the very least, if the software standardization challenge is met.
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