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Wednesday, November 19, 2008, 03:45 pm PT (06:45 pm ET)

Apple's OpenCL standard near complete in just six months

Apple has reportedly set an industry record by moving its OpenCL parallel computing standard from its beginnings to imminent approval in half a year, paving the way for its inclusion in Mac OS X Snow Leopard.

Representatives of the standards overseer Khronos Group and its partners used Austin's SC08 high-performance computing show this week to tout the speed of the draft format's completion to Macworld and gathered members of the press.

Khronos' presentation from the event now shows that the first feature-complete edition of OpenCL (Open Compute Language) was submitted for ratification in October, or just four months after it was first proposed alongside the unveiling of Snow Leopard. The operating system will use the technology to accelerate general-purpose tasks using both individual processor cores as well as video chipsets inside its systems.

The group's chief, NVIDIA executive Neil Trevett, also suggests through statements that the total development time for OpenCL was unusually quick as a whole. A timeline provided by the organization shows Apple having worked on the initial proposal with AMD, Intel and NVIDIA in an undetermined amount of time before the June unveiling, but Trevett himself indicates that the total time involved was just six months — unprecedented speed for a certification process often known more for the caution involved.

“If you go to some other larger standards bodies, it’s quite normal for a standard to take five years or more,” he explains. “That’s quite commonplace. You actually have to really push to get it down to eighteen months. Our record was [twelve] months, up to now; we’ve done this one in six.”

Much of the rapidity is directly attributed to Snow Leopard. For Intel, the prospect of seeing OpenCL already in a shipping operating system for 2009 has been a strong lure. Employees have "divorced [their] families" and worked extreme levels of overtime to complete a draft that many said would be "impossible," according to the chipmaker's Tim Mattson.

But while congratulating themselves for their accelerated work, neither Apple nor the other standard developers have yet to outline how OpenCL will specifically benefit Macs.

At present, NVIDIA's vendor-specific equivalent language, CUDA, is used primarily to speed up data and scientific calculations by using the generalized nature of GeForce video hardware alongside the main CPU. OpenCL will at a minimum open this to AMD's ATI Radeon hardware, but isn't yet known to be addressing any specific roles in Mac OS X. Mattson notes that it can often be used for processing physics, such as those found in games.

It's also said that OpenCL can scale down to smaller devices, including smartphones, as long as the processor or graphics chipset are capable of supporting this kind of acceleration.

As quickly as the standard has gone through industry checks, however, Apple and Khronos both have a pair of additional steps to undertake before their format is entirely ready. The individual vendors will first have to sign off on the completed draft and suggest changes as necessary, after which a specification can reach the public; later, Khronos will also introduce some tests to ensure that hardware and software developers properly follow the standard.

No timeline has been supplied for when these would take place, though the ratification will take a minimum of 30 days to finish. This would nonetheless give Apple enough time to include OpenCL for both the official mid-2009 release window for Snow Leopard as well as the rumored early schedule.