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Moore's Law bending, ready to break

Gordon Moore is a genius and one of the best technology analysts to ever live. Back in 1965, he observed that the number of transistors on chips doubled roughly every two years. This became known as Moore's Law, and it still holds true, more or less, even though Moore himself predicted the law only had about a 10-year shelf life.

Moore's Law has been interpreted and extrapolated many ways, the most popular being that computing power is set to double every two years. And it has, though Moore was actually only talking about the number of transistors in his original theory. But it's been fairly consistent in terms of processing power.

However, I recently interviewed Eric Ladizinsky from D-Wave Systems, who helped to build NASA's quantum computer. Near the end of the interview, he casually mentioned that the government’s next quantum computer will have more qubits -- the physical components that make up the quantum processing power – growing from 128 to 512. But that won’t quadruple the power; it will result, Ladizinsky said, in a 300,000-fold increase in processing power.

Though quantum computers are unique, processing power has been more than doubling as well for everyday computers, and more frequently than every two years.

Consider that an average laptop aimed at the government that the GCN Lab reviewed in 2012, the Dell Latitude E6420 ATG, with a 64-bit operating system and 4G of RAM, scored a respectable 1,565 on the Passmark Performance Test Benchmark. Then this past July, a similarly configured notebook, the Scorpius from Eurocom with the new Intel Haswell chip scored 4,576. That's almost three times more performance in a year. We've seen even more dramatic gains for workstation computers, going as high as 6,131 from a score of 2,200 for a top-of-the-line unit just two years ago. This is a trend we are seeing across the board.

One reason may be that many components are being upgraded alongside the processor, with memory being the primary supporting factor. Going from DDR3 to DDR5 results in a nice performance boost even if the processor remains the same. And even though hard drive speeds have more or less topped out, there are newer technologies like solid state drives that can give that area of the system a bit of a bump, too.

The current wisdom is that Moore's Law should hold firm until 2015, but from what I've seen, it's already bending in terms of computer processing power. One could argue that it's already broken.

For government, this is both good and bad news. On the down side, the standard calculations as to when agencies will need new computers may go out the window. If software quickly catches up, and it always does, to take advantage of the speeds the new hardware is offering, then a system purchased today may not even be close to having enough power to run programs coming out next year, much less in two. But on the positive side, this incredible surge in power is happening across the board, and without the accompanying spikes we often see in pricing. Agencies that don’t need bleeding-edge gear can buy a lot of technology for a lot less money than before. Even I'm surprised how much computer a few hundred dollars will buy, a price that wouldn't even have covered a base motherboard a few years ago.

This is certainly an area to keep an eye on. The avalanche of rapid performance gains is coming.

Posted by John Breeden II on Sep 17, 2013 at 12:28 PM


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