The next big leap

The two news items are unconnected, but collectively they point to something big on the horizon for computing in terms of speed, performance and capability.

While the industry has traditionally been marked by steady but incremental improvements, every now and then it takes a quantum leap. We appear to be on our way up these days, venturing into exciting but still uncharted territory.

The first story concerns an experiment in fibre-optics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre that set a new Internet speed record.

A team of researchers was able to transfer data at 923 megabits per second, essentially moving 6.7 gigabytes of data – twice the size of a DVD movie – from Sunnyvale, California to Amsterdam, Netherlands in just 58 seconds. To put that into perspective, that’s about 3,500 times faster than an average broadband connection, over a distance of approximately 11,000 kilometres.

Although the experiment took place on a closed connection, using experimental technologies and more than $1 million U.S. in high-tech equipment, one day the researchers believe that the technology will move down the ladder from research labs to institutions to the general public. Although it is still going to be a long time before homes will be getting transfer rates of 932 megabits per second, the technologies could result in broadband Internet speeds that are hundreds of times faster.

Another recent development that hints at a quantum leap is the imminent release of Advanced Micro Devices’ (AMD’s) Opteron and Athlon series of 64-bit processors.

While AMD is still behind Intel by a year and a half, the Intel 64-bit Itanium processors were given mixed reviews by industry watchers and weren’t backwards compatible with existing chipsets. The AMD processors are getting rave reviews, however, and both Linux and Microsoft have announced operating systems to utilize this expanded 64-bit capability.

With two chip makers in the game, there’s also more incentive for both hardware and software companies to produce products that are compatible with 64-bit technology.

This is one of the most significant expansions of computer capability in two decades.

Going back to 1985, Intel released the first 32-bit processors, which far exceeded the technological specifications of the day. Even today 32-bits has remained the standard, but as the performance of computers, software and peripherals and digital technology has increased, and applications have grown in size and capability, 32-bit architecture is quickly becoming a limiting factor for some users.

It’s all about memory. Back in 1985 a computer used about one megabyte of memory, and the 32-bit processors of today can handle up to four gigabytes (4,000 megabytes) of memory. After that, there is nowhere to go.

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