Micron challenges conventional computer architecture with new chip

Micron's Automata processor uses modified memory cells that can be reprogrammed to solve specific problems

By , IDG News Service |  Hardware

Micron is challenging conventional computer architectures conceived decades ago with Automata, a highly parallel processor that can change its behavior to process the task at hand.

The Automata processor, which was announced this week, has thousands of modified memory cells that can be turned into processing units, said Paul Dlugosch, director of Micron's Automata processor technology development. The memory cells are nonvolatile, and can be erased and reprogrammed to solve a certain problem, Dlugosch said.

"This is indeed a new architecture, it's based on memory," Dlugosch said, adding that the processor has been under development for seven years.

The customized column of memory in Automata can gang up to process tasks quicker than on conventional computers, Dlugosch said. There are no fixed data sizes, and with a compiler, instructions can be created on the fly targeted at solving specific problems. Data is spread across memory units in parallel for processing, and unlike conventional computers, there is no need to wait for data to be shifted out of memory.

Dlugosch said Automata challenges conventional computer architectures at work since the 1940s in which data is pushed into a processor, calculated and pushed back in the memory with the help of instructions and logic units. One such computer architecture was derived in the 1940s by mathematician John von Neumann. But chip-level limitations and programming languages hamper the ability of current CPUs and GPUs to parallelize tasks, Dlugosch said.

Automata combines logic and DDR memory interfaces, but won't replace conventional CPUs, Dlugosch said. Automata needs a CPU, FPGA (field-programmable gate array), network processor or other host computing units to feed high-level instructions.

"We make no claims that the Automata process will run on its own," Dlugosch said. "The Automata processor must be programmed."

For now, Automata can be used as a coprocessor for applications in areas such as bioinformatics, security and video processing.

"We'll see the Automata processor grow in popularity and grow as the dominant analysis engine for unstructured data," Dlugosch said.

The Automata DRAM DIMM must be thought of as a black box, said Jim Handy, analyst at Objective Analysis. A host processor loads data from another memory, hard drive, or some other source, and then writes code into another part of that DIMM's DRAM, then tells Automata to get to work.

"The host then goes off and does something else until the Automata signals completion, whereupon the host reads the results," Handy said.

Automata could be an attempt to get the memory bus out of the way and put the processor in the same package of memory cells, said Nathan Brookwood, analyst at Insight 64.

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