Intel has its own offering at the high end. Its Xeon Phi uses more than 60 simplified x86 cores to handle parallel jobs, using tools Intel has developed. Phi is just starting to gain traction (quite quickly) among the top 500.
The sweet spot for HSA is solving very real problems in the mainstream computing space, where processors are increasingly looking like smartphone chips with a variety of cores.
"We've been careful to develop an [HSA] architecture that works for all accelerators," said Phil Rogers, president of the HSA Foundation and an AMD fellow with a specialty in graphics. "We started first with GPUs, but other accelerators are expected, including DSPs, DMA engines, codecs, and crypto processors. Each company will migrate to accelerators as it makes sense."
The programmer's problem HSA solves is very real. Rogers talked about the difficulties handling mainstream apps on SoCs where CPU and GPU cores have their own private pools of memory. "People already developing apps that use both sets of cores, but the problem is they have to perform unnatural acts to make it work." It's nearly impossible to "walk through the data structures that exist if they have pointers that are in the virtual memory space only the CPU understands."
Thus today's mobile programmers typically recraft data structures to keep track of information in various CPUs and GPUs. In addition to creating extra complexity and work, the approach sacrifices some performance. In his keynote, Rodgers talked about all sorts of apps that could use the extra performance and simplicity HSA promises. They include big data jobs run on Hadoop and Map Reduce, certain database tasks, oil and gas discovery, and media transcoding for carriers and web datacenters.
So HSA promises real advantages for developers of SoCs and apps -- and for AMD if it can deliver the features in a way that leapfrogs Intel and Nvidia offerings. As with so many issues in electronics, it comes down to a question of when.
AMD saw the future of microprocessors was in mixed-core SoCs back in 2006, when it purchased ATI Technologies for its GPUs. Seven years later, it is still pursuing the vision, and it still faces a long road to deliver on it.