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No Such Thing as a General-Purpose Processor

By David Chisnall

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 57 No. 12, Pages 44-48

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There is an increasing trend in computer architecture to categorize processors and accelerators as "general purpose." Of the papers published at this year's International Symposium on Computer Architecture (ISCA 2014), nine out of 45 explicitly referred to general-purpose processors; one additionally referred to general-purpose FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays), and another referred to general-purpose MIMD (multiple instruction, multiple data) supercomputers, somewhat stretching the definition to the breaking point. This article presents the argument that there is no such thing as a truly general-purpose processor and that the belief in such a device is harmful.

Many of the papers presented at ISCA 2014 that did not explicitly refer to general-purpose processors or cores did instead refer to general-purpose programs, typically in the context of a GPGPU (general-purpose graphics processing unit), a term with an inherent contradiction.


Gunnar Wolf

I much enjoyed this article when it appeared on Queue, and asked my students (for the Operating Systems class) to relate the concepts here presented to the material we reviewed during the whole semester. A very concise, interesting article full of cues on how we should reshape our teaching and understanding on the subject!

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