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Intel, Microsoft to back multicore research

Chip giant and software titan are united by a need for better ways of allowing software to take advantage of machines with many processor cores.

There's nothing like a big challenge to bring a couple closer together.

Such is the case with Intel and Microsoft, which announced on Tuesday they are jointly backing university research to help address the challenges posed by a shift to processors with many brains.

The companies are committing a combined $20 million to fund parallel computing research centers at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

For years, the PC processor just got faster and faster, performance gains that software could easily take advantage of. In recent years, though, chip speed gains have flattened out, while Intel and others have been pushing multiple processing cores on a single chip.

More cores can also add up to better performance, but to fully utilize multiple brains, software needs to be rewritten in ways that allow tasks to be split up and handled in parallel, a significant technical hurdle.

"The software has to also start following Moore's Law," Intel fellow Shekhar Borkar said at a May gathering with reporters.

Both Intel and Microsoft have been working on this issue for some time.

In January, Microsoft announced it was setting up a joint research facility in Spain in conjunction with the Barcelona Supercomputing Center.

Microsoft Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie told CNET in May that the shift of the PC from a single processor to one with many processing engines is "probably the single most disruptive thing that we will have done in the last 20 or 30 years."

Tony Hey, Microsoft's vice president of external research, echoed that on a conference call Tuesday, saying the shift in chip architecture will "profoundly impact" the way software is written.

"We're really in the midst of a revolution in the software industry," he said.