Microsoft, Intel design Windows 7 to be speedy

The upcoming OS can take advantage of multithreaded and multicore Intel chips

Collaboration with Microsoft could allow the software giant's upcoming Windows 7 OS to take advantage of multithreaded and multicore Intel chips for faster application performance, according to an Intel official.

Microsoft and Intel are working together to give Windows 7 the ability to better identify resources available and break up application processing over multiple chip cores and threads.

A feature called SMT parking allows Windows 7 to take advantage of Intel hyperthreading technology for "better performance on hyperthreaded, multicore Intel processors," wrote Joakim Lialias, an Intel alliance manager, in a blog entry on Microsoft's Web site that was posted late Wednesday.

This feature will help users break up tasks like video encoding and image filtering over multiple task-execution threads, said George Alfs, an Intel spokesman. "The more cores you have, the better," Alfs said. Intel chips based on its new Nehalem architecture are capable of running two threads per core, and ultimately all of Intel's laptop and desktop chips will be based on Nehalem, Alfs said.

The companies also worked together on technologies that could allow Windows 7 to boot and shut down faster, Alfs said. Driver and BIOS-level improvement could improve the start, shut-down, sleep and resume times. Chips based on the Nehalem microarchitecture can go into an idle state faster than earlier chips, and Windows 7 is designed to take advantage of that capability, Alfs said.

The cooperation of Intel and Microsoft shouldn't come as a surprise. Most PCs today come with Intel chips and Microsoft's Windows operating system, so there is a benefit in both companies working together.

Intel and Microsoft have been collaborating for more than 20 years now, according to Lialias. "Our mutual goal was to provide the most responsive compute experience possible," Lialias wrote.

The blog entry also sheds light on specific hardware-related improvements Microsoft is incorporating into the new OS, something the company has been quiet about. Microsoft wasn't immediately available to comment on the topic.

Observers have criticized Microsoft's previous operating systems for not taking full advantage of multicore and multithreaded chips. Windows 7 will do a more intelligent job of allocating tasks across hardware resources, said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist with In-Stat.

The traditional way of boosting application performance on PCs was by cranking up CPU clock speed, McGregor said. That led to software being written in a sequential mode for execution on one core, with an increase in clock speed providing the performance boost. But over time, chip makers like Intel started adding cores to boost performance, as cranking up clock speed led to excessive heat dissipation and power consumption.

Software typically lags hardware development by three to five years, and software developers are still playing catch-up to hardware improvements. Even today, many consumer software applications are not designed to take advantage of multiple cores. But Windows 7 could encourage developers to start writing applications for multicore chips.

The past few years have also seen the emergence of solid-state drives, which are considered faster than hard drives. Intel and Microsoft are working on technologies to speed access to SSDs by including faster read and write capabilities. Intel plans to deliver firmware for its SSDs that supports the Trim command in Windows 7, which speeds up the writing and erasing of SSDs.

Microsoft is also incorporating DirectX 11 graphics drivers into Windows 7 to effectively break up tasks over multiple cores to boost application and graphics performance. Intel in June already launched new graphics drivers that work with Windows 7, but for now the drivers support only DirectX 10.

But Microsoft isn't the first to focus on multicore OS design. Apple has changed the basic architecture of its upcoming Mac OS X 10.6 OS, code-named Snow Leopard, by introducing new features that tap into the processing power of multiple CPU and graphics cores. A number of enhancements allow the OS to divvy up tasks for simultaneous execution across cores.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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