What are Threads in Processors? How Many Threads is Good?

What are Threads in Processors? How Many Threads are Good?

Modern processors such as general-purpose central processing units and coprocessors such as graphics processing units are now multithreaded. Even some artificial intelligence accelerators such as the Tensor Processing Units from Google have thread-like architectures. Mainstream Intel processors that include the Intel Core and Intel Xeon lines of central processing units are equipped with the proprietary Intel Hyper-Threading while processors from AMD such as the AMD Ryzen and AMD Ryzen Threadripper use a similar simultaneous multithreading or SMT technology. But what exactly are threads in processors and what is the right number of threads based on different use cases or applications?

Understanding What Threads Are in Processors and the Ideal Number of Threads For Different and Specific Use Cases

Explaining Threads in Processors and Their Purpose

A thread can mean two different things. For starters, when it comes to processor design, a thread represents virtual units or software constructs that handle more specific tasks in a programming instruction. It is different from cores. Take note that cores are physical units or hardware within a single processor. A processor with multiple threads or a multithreaded processor can work on or handle multiple tasks simultaneously. This also means that multithreading is a process in which a single processor or core works on multiple tasks.

The other definition of a thread is that it is also a code or software construct that divides the core of a processor into virtual multiple cores. A single core can have two threads. This definition is still similar to the aforementioned but it is more focused on the underlying technology behind the virtualization of a single core into multiple cores. The purpose is also similar. Hence, threading means that a processor can perform multiple tasks at the same time. This results in a faster and more efficient processor performance or capabilities.

Nevertheless, based on the aforementioned, the purpose of threads is that they enable processors to do multitasking or allow parallelism or parallel computing, and enable effective and efficient overlapping of various input-output operations such as reading from a storage device and fetching data from the network. A multithreaded processor also enhances the responsiveness of the user interface of a desktop operating system, optimizes hardware utilization, and enables servers to handle multiple concurrent client requests.

Recommended Number of Threads Based on Use Cases

Part of choosing a central processing unit or a graphics processing unit is checking the number of their physical cores and their respective thread counts. The general rule is that a processor has threads if has multiple cores and supports technologies such as the Hyper-Threading of Intel or the simultaneous multithreading of AMD processors. It is also important to note that the consensus is that central processing units with more cores and fewer thread counts are better than ones with fewer cores and more threads in terms of performance.

A higher thread count is still ideal. However, considering the cost implications, it might not be suitable. Processors with more threads tend to be more expensive and fall within the higher-end market segment. The rule of thumb is that applications that do a lot of computations should use processors that have a thread count equal to or twice the number of cores. Use cases that involve that are more focused on input-output operations should be higher than the number of cores. Mixed applications sit somewhere between these two choices.

Take note that graphic processing units tend to have higher tend to have higher thread count than central processing units because they are designed for parallel computing. The higher number of the threads enables them to conceal the latency of memory access and other hardware operations through switching between different threads on the same core. Most of these processors are also based on a single instruction and multithread architecture. This means that they distribute tasks among smaller units for faster and more efficient execution.

A Rundown on What Threads Are in Processors, Their Importance, and the Suitable Number of Threads or Thread Count

Nevertheless, based on the discussions above, threads are virtual units or software constructs of a processor that handle smaller tasks within a programming instruction and divide the cores into virtual multiple cores. Their purpose center on enabling multitasking via parallel computing. The emergence of more advanced and complicated software programs has increased the need for processors that are effective and efficient at multitasking and parallelism.

However, when it comes to options, it is important to note that the number of cores matters most in central processing units for average-level computing requirements. A higher thread count is the most ideal but this comes at higher price points. The average personal computer users would be fine with using central processing units with at least 8 to 10 threads but power users such as PC gamers and content creators would benefit from a tread count of 16 or more.

It is important to underscore the fact that applications that involve a lot of computing or running intensive software require processors with a thread count that is equal to or twice higher than the number of cores. Applications that require intensive input-output or hardware operations require more threads. Furthermore, in choosing graphics processors for PC gaming and content creation, the higher or greater the thread count, the better the graphics processing capabilities.