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The productivity of modern society has become inextricably linked to its ability to produce energy-efficient computing technology. Increasingly sophisticated mobile computing systems, powered for hours solely by batteries, continue to proliferate rapidly throughout society, while battery technology improves at a much slower pace. In large data centers that handle everything from online orders for a dot-com company to sophisticated Web searches, row upon row of tightly packed computers may be warehoused in a city block. Microprocessor energy wastage in such a facility directly translates into higher electric bills. Simply receiving sufficient electricity from utilities to power such a center is no longer certain. Given this situation, energy efficiency has rapidly moved to the forefront of modern microprocessor design.

The adaptive processing approach to improving microprocessor energy efficiency dynamically tunes major microprocessor resources—such as caches and hardware queues—during execution to better match varying application needs.1,2 This tuning usually involves reducing the size of a resource when its full capabilities are not needed, then restoring the disabled portions when they are needed again. Dynamically tailoring processor resources in active use contrasts sharply with techniques that simply turn off entire sections of a processor when they become idle. Presenting the application with the required amount of hardware—and nothing more— throughout its execution can achieve a potentially significant reduction in energy consumption.

The challenges facing adaptive processing lie in achieving this greater efficiency with reasonable hardware and software overhead, and doing so without incurring undue performance loss. Unlike reconfigurable computing, which typically uses very different technology such as FPGAs, adaptive processing exploits the dynamic superscalar design approach that developers have used successfully in many generations of general-purpose processors. Whereas reconfigurable processors must demonstrate performance or energy savings large enough to overcome very large clock frequency and circuit density disadvantages, adaptive processors typically have baseline overheads of only a few percent.