It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of fastness, it was the age of sluggishness, it was the epoch of abstraction, it was the epoch of detail, it was the season of generality, it was the season of specificity, it was the spring of right, it was the winter of wrong, we had improving performance before us, we had degrading performance before us, we were all going direct to where Moore predicted, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its most influential experts insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Sometimes I have the impression we’re experiencing a collective delusion regarding how we’re dealing with the end of Moore’s law — the prediction that the density of transistors in integrated circuits grows exponentially over time.

The growth predicted by Moore’s law has gone on for decades, providing a veritable, Lucullan free lunch to the entire information technology industry. But now this bonanza is running out: the density growth is slowing down, and improvements in miniaturization do not directly translate into faster clock rates.

That exponential growth is not sustainable in the long term should come as no surprise to any trained engineer. In Moore’s words: The nature of exponentials is that you push them out and eventually disaster happens. Or, using Linus Torvald’s unmistakably caustic style (talking about a different exponential growth): Unending exponential growth? What drugs are those people on? I mean, really.

Rather than coming to terms with the harsh reality — the party is over — we prefer to sugar the pill and tell a less dramatic story. Sure, the clock rate of microprocessors has not increased significantly in a while, but the progress of electronics technology is still spectacular, and is giving us chips with more and more computational units crammed onto the same circuit. So, the updated story goes, the new challenge is exploiting the increasingly parallel hardware by writing increasingly concurrent software. Of course, concurrent software is notoriously hard to get right, but software technology is up to the challenge. More of Moore through concurrency.

But can concurrent programming really let us keep on riding the exponential speedup wave? There’s no question that improving the state of concurrent programming is a fascinating research challenge, both intellectually and practically. But I’m afraid the end of Moore’s law is more disruptive than we are willing to admit. And its long-term consequences cannot be countered simply by better programming.

The elephant in the room is that we know of only a handful of algorithms and programs that can be massively parallelized. In most cases, there is a significant fraction of the computation that is intrinsically sequential, which drastically limits, per Amdahl’s law, the speedup that can be obtained by adding computing cores. You can have the best concurrency model in the world, a flawless implementation, and as many cores as you like, but still be nowhere near anything like exponential speedup (in fact, not even linear speedup!).

Here’s what some Don Knuth said about it in a 2008 interview that should be quoted more often.

To me, it looks more or less like the hardware designers have run out of ideas, and that they’re trying to pass the blame for the future demise of Moore’s Law to the software writers by giving us machines that work faster only on a few key benchmarks! […]

Let me put it this way: During the past 50 years, I’ve written well over a thousand programs, many of which have substantial size. I can’t think of even five of those programs that would have been enhanced noticeably by parallelism or multithreading. […]

[Hardware vendors] think a magic bullet will come along to make multicores speed up my kind of work; I think it’s a pipe dream. […]

From the opposite point of view, I do grant that web browsing probably will get better with multicores. I’ve been talking about my technical work, however, not recreation.

I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s right, as I have the impression the guy knows a thing or two about algorithms and programming.

I look forward, by all means, to the challenges of combining abstraction and efficiency in concurrency research. But perhaps we should not be selling concurrent programming as a potential “fix” to the end of Moore’s law. While every exponential growth eventually stops (I mean, really), we can have the more down-to-earth goal of making the most out of the new exotic hardware architectures that are being developed. May we live in interesting times.

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