How fast is the fastest microprocessor chip, now and in the future?

by | Apr 20, 2011 06:37 PM ET

You asked:

How fast is the fastest microprocessor chip, now and in the future?

Marshall Brain answers:

Today, in 2011, the fastest microprocessor chips that are commercially available to "normal people" are the six-core hyperthreaded chips from Intel. These chips run at approximately 3.3 gigahertz and each core can execute two threads. If everything is running out of the cache, the Intel chip could theoretically execute 12 instructions per clock cycle, producing a theoretical maximum of 3.33 * 12 = 40 billion operations per second.

That chip is built using 32 nanometer technology. Within 5 to 10 years, silicon chips will reach their theoretical minimum feature size at approximately 11 nanometers. It is likely that Intel will be able to fit 50 or so cores on a chip, which with hyperthreading will allow 100 simultaneous threads. Clock rate is not likely to increase much above current levels. Therefore we can expect a theoretical maximum of 3.33 * 100 = 330 billion operations per second from such a chip.

Chips cannot actually run that fast because, eventually, the processor has to go back to main memory to load the cache. Main memory is slow compared to processor speeds, and that slowness can lead to idle cycles. Even so, both 32 nanometer and 11 nanometer chips feel the same effects of memory lag, so the comparison stands. Chips will get roughly nine times faster in 5 to 10 years.

At that point, silicon microprocessor development will reach its logical conclusion and it will be time to switch to a new technology. Graphene is one possibility.

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