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Technical Perspective: How Economic Theories Can Help Computers Beat the Heat

By Thomas F. Wenisch

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 62 No. 2, Page 97

Nearly every computer system today runs hot ... too hot. For over a decade, thermal constraints have limited the computational capability of computing systems of all sizes—from mobile phones to datacenters. And, for nearly that long, system designers have cheated those thermal limits, allowing systems to burn more power, and produce more heat, for short periods to deliver bursts of peak performance beyond what can be sustained. This idea—running a computer too hot for a short period of time to get a burst of performance—is called computational sprinting.

We have likely all experienced computational sprinting on our smartphones; it turns out that, if all the cores, accelerators, and peripherals on a modern smartphone are turned on at once, the phone will generate several times more heat than can be dissipated through its case. If you play a demanding 3D video game for more than a few minutes, you might notice the phone get uncomfortably warm. As the phone heats up, eventually, processing speeds have to slow to keep temperature rise in check. When the phone cools, its processor can run full-tilt again.


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