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foreword - Volume 10 Number 1

CURRENT ISSUE - Volume 10 Number 1

William C. Blake,
Director, High Performance Technical Computing
Director, Core Technology Groups

You might think that the cover of this issue of the Digital Technical Journal is a bit odd. After all, what could be the relevance of those ancient alchemists in the drawing to the computer-age topic of programming languages and tools? Certainly, both alchemists and programmers work busily on new tools. An even more interesting metaphorical connection is the alchemist and the compiler software developer as creators of tools that transform (transmute, in the strict sense of alchemy) the base into the precious. The metaphor does, however, break down. Unlike the myth and folklore of alchemy, the science and technology of compiler software development is a real and important part of processing a new solution or algorithm into the correct and highest performance set of actual machine instructions. This issue of the Journal addresses current, state-of-the-art work at Compaq Computer Corporation on programming languages and tools.

Gone are the days when programmers plied their craft "close to the machine," that is, working in detailed machine instructions. Today, system designers and application developers, driven by the pressures of time to market and technical complexity, must express their solutions in terms "close to the programmer" because people think best in ways that are abstract, language dependent, and machine independent. Enhancing the characteristics of an abstract high-level language, however, conflicts with the need for lower level optimizations that make the code run fastest. Computers still require detailed machine instructions, and the high-level programs close to the programmer must be correctly compiled into those instructions. This semantic gap between programming languages and machine instructions is central to the evolution of compilers and to microprocessor architectures as well. The compiler developer’s role is to help close the gap by preserving the correctness of the compilation and at the same time resolving the trade-offs between the optimizations needed for improvements "close to the programmer" and those needed "close to the machine."

To put the work described in this Journal into context, it is helpful to think about the changes in compiler requirements over the past 15 years. It was in the early 1980s that the direction of future computer architectures changed from increasingly complex instruction sets, CISC, that supported high-level languages to computer architectures with much simpler, reduced instruction sets, RISC. Three key research efforts led the way: the Berkeley RISC processor, the IBM 801 RISC processor, and the Stanford MIPS processor. All three approaches dramatically reduced the instruction set and increased the clock rate. The RISC approach promised improvements up to a factor of five compared with CISC machines using the same manufacturing technology. Compaq’s transition from the VAX to the Alpha 64-bit RISC architecture was a direct result of the new architectural trend.

As a consequence of these major architectural changes, compilers and their associated tools became significantly more important. New, much more complex compilers for RISC machines eliminated the need for the large, microcoded CISC machines. The complexities of high-level language processing moved from the petrified software of CISC microprocessors to a whole new generation of optimizing compilers. This move caused some to claim that RISC really stands for "Relegate Important Stuff to Compilers."

The introduction of the third-generation Alpha microprocessor, the 21264, demonstrates that the shift to RISC and Alpha system implementations and compilers served Compaq customers well by producing reliable, accurate, and high-performance computers. In fact, Alpha systems, which have the ability to process over a billion 64-bit floating-point numbers per second, perform at levels formerly attained only by specialized supercomputers. It is not surprising that the Alpha microprocessor is the most frequently used microprocessor in the top 500 largest supercomputing sites in the world.

After reading through the papers in this issue, you may wonder what is next for compilers and tools. As physical limits curtail the shrinking of silicon feature sizes, there is not likely to be a repeat of the performance gains at the microprocessor level, so attention will turn to compiler technology and computer architecture to deliver the next thousandfold increase in sustained application performance. The two principal laws that affect dramatic application performance improvements are Moore’s Law and Amdahl’s Law. Moore’s Law states that performance will double each 18 months due to semiconductor process scaling; and Amdahl’s Law expresses the diminishing returns of various system speedup enhancements. In the next 15 years, Moore’s Law may be stopped by the physical realities of scaling limits. But Amdahl’s Law will be broken as well as improvements in parallel language, tool development, and new methods of achieving parallelism will positively affect the future of compilers and hence application performance. As you will see in papers in this issue, there is a new emphasis on increasing execution speed by exploiting the multiple instruction issue capability of Alpha microprocessors. Improvements in execution speed will accelerate dramatically as future compilers exploit performance improvement techniques using new capabilities evolved in Alpha. Compilers will deliver new ways of hiding instruction latency (reducing the performance gap between vector processors and RISC superscalar machines), improved unrolling and optimization of loops, instruction reordering and scheduling, and ways of dealing with parallel decomposition and data layout in nonuniform memory architectures. The challenges to compiler and tool developers will undoubtedly increase over time.

By not relying on hardware improvements to deliver all the increases in performance, compiler wizards are making their own contributions -- always watchful of correctness first, then run-time performance, and, finally, speed and efficiency of the software development process itself.

Bill Blake

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