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Making mountains out of multicore

Start-up PeakStream's software is designed to adapt technical computing tasks to graphics and multicore chips.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
2 min read
More and more, new computers are packed with processing engines. Now a start-up called PeakStream is developing software designed to let technical computing customers take advantage of that horsepower more easily.

PeakStream's development software product will let programmers take advantage of three chip advancements, said Chief Executive Neil Knox: multicore processors, increasingly powerful graphics chips and the Cell Broadband Engine chip co-developed by IBM, Sony and Toshiba. The company plans to announce its products Monday.

The Redwood City, Calif.-based company plans to begin selling the software later this year with support for multicore processors and ATI Technologies' graphics chips, said Knox, who ran Sun Microsystems' lower-end server business until 2004 and joined PeakStream in December. After that will come support for Nvidia graphics chips and the Cell processor, which combines a main processing core with eight special-purpose calculation engines.

The idea is to unlock the computing power of the chips without having to employ awkward or even hidden interfaces, said Michael Mullany, vice president of marketing and a former marketing executive at VMware. "We allow people to write algorithms as they're used to, in C or C++, and we take care of poking the hardware underneath," Mullany said.

Silicon engineers have been adding new features as new manufacturing processes permit more circuitry to be added to chips. But software often is written to execute as a single thread of instructions, and it can be hard to adapt it for the multithread abilities of multicore processors. And chips like Cell, which use different types of processing cores, can be even harder to program; IBM released a research project called Octopiler to try to make programming Cell easier.

PeakStream's software is designed to greatly speed up calculations for customers in technical markets. One market is for oil and gas companies processing seismic data to discern the location of oil reserves; another is Wall Street customers simulating potential financial outcomes. One customer is geophysics firm Hess.

To get the performance boost, though, customers must adjust their software to use PeakStream's software interface. But that's easier than figuring out the inner workings of graphics cards or other hardware.

The PeakStream has solid Silicon Valley credentials. The software began as the Brook Project at Stanford by a professor Pat Hanrahan, co-founder and the company's chief scientist. The other company co-founder is Chief Technology Officer Matt Papakipos, who was lead architect for Nvidia's GeForce 6 series of graphics chips, also known as the NV4X products. Varun Mehta, formerly of Network Appliance, is vice president of engineering.

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Sequoia Capital provided a $5 million investment in 2005, and Foundation Capital joined in a second, $12 million round in 2006.