Microsoft and Intel have announced a new research initiative aimed at accelerating developments in a trend known as “parallel computing.”

The initiative, which features the creation of two Universal Parallel Computing Research Centers on U.S. campuses, could have major implications for education and the way students use computers to learn.

Parallel computing separates complex procedures into discrete tasks to be completed simultaneously over multiple microprocessors, instead of using one processor to complete each task one after another–thereby allowing computers to work faster and more efficiently. Although Microsoft, Intel, and many others deliver hardware and software that is capable of handling dual- and quad-core-based PCs today, in the coming years computers are likely to have even more processors inside them.

The new research centers will be located at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Microsoft and Intel have committed a combined $20 million to these research centers over the next five years.

An additional $8 million will come from UIUC, and Berkeley has applied for $7 million in funds from a state-supported program to match these industry grants. The research will focus on advancing parallel programming applications, architecture, and operating systems software. This is the first joint industry and university research alliance of this magnitude in the United States focused on mainstream parallel computing, participants said.

“Intel has already shown an 80-core research processor, and we’re quickly moving the computing industry to a many-core world,” said Andrew Chien, vice president of Intel’s corporate technology group and director of Intel Research.

“Working with Microsoft and these two prestigious universities will help catalyze the long-term breakthroughs that are needed to enable dramatic new applications for the mainstream user. We think these new applications will have the ability to efficiently and robustly sense and act in our everyday world with new capabilities–rich digital media and visual interfaces, powerful statistical analyses and search, and mobile applications. Ultimately, these sensing and human-interface capabilities will bridge the physical world with the virtual.”

Chien said he hopes the collaboration will “address some of the challenges in large-scale parallelism that confront the industry in the future.” He added: “We expect [parallelism] to permeate every corner of computing going forward.”

Microsoft agrees. “Driven by the unprecedented capability of multicore processors, we’re in the midst of a revolution in the computing industry, which profoundly affects the way we develop software,” said Tony Hey, corporate vice president of external research at Microsoft Research. “Working jointly with industry and academia, we plan to explore the next generation of hardware and software to unlock the promise and the power of parallel computing and enable a change in the way people use technology.”

Hey said uses for parallel computing might include an intelligent digital assistant that can prioritize incoming calls and eMail messages, identify scheduling conflicts, and learn the pattern of how the user interacts with people; and a personal healthcare assistant that will monitor diet and exercise and send alerts for medical appointments or taking medicine.

Berkeley’s new research center will be directed by computer-science professor David Patterson and will include 14 members of the Berkeley faculty, as well as 50 doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers.

UIUC’s research center will be led by Marc Snir, a professor of computer science, and Wen-Mei Hwu, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, in collaboration with 20 additional faculty members and 26 graduate students and researchers.

Software created by the centers will be made available to the technology community for additional development.

“This new center is exciting because it will allow us to explore the amazing potential of parallel computing,” Patterson said. “We look forward to this once-in-a-career opportunity to recast the foundations of information technology, which will benefit the entire IT industry for decades to come.”

“We now face the exciting challenge of making parallelism so easy to use that parallel programming becomes synonymous with programming,” Snir said.

Parallelism is a challenge, he added, but also “a major opportunity.”

The research will complement and extend existing parallel computing programs at Berkeley, UIUC, Microsoft, and Intel. The centers’ research agenda aligns closely with both Intel’s Tera-scale Computing Research Program and Microsoft’s Technical Computing Initiative, the companies said.

Links:

Intel Corp.

Microsoft Corp.

University of California, Berkeley

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the “Creating the 21st Century Classroom”resource center. Preparing today’s youth to succeed in the digital economy requires a new kind of teaching and learning. Skills such as global literacy, computer literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation have become critical in today’s increasingly interconnected workforce and society–and technology is the catalyst for bringing these changes into the classroom. Go to Creating-the-21st-century-classroom