Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/03/10/intel_heat/

Intel's talk starts to match rivals' products

The five-year push to marketing parity

By Ashlee Vance

Posted in Hardware, 10th March 2006 21:41 GMT

Analysis You have to hand it to Intel for talking about power management and the benefits of multi-core processing with such confidence. Using reality distortion, Intel has convinced itself that it pioneered such technology instead of being the lone laggard to catch up with the rest of the industry.

At the Intel Developer Forum, various executives spun the yarn about Intel taking power consumption issues seriously years ago. In addition, the company long had an ambitious multi-core processor plan in place, we were told. Now Intel will combine the fruits of all this work to crush the competition on a performance per watt basis.

(The claims about such a masterful plan are comical when Intel admits that surprise development work in Israel has led to its entire future line of chips.)

Intel's attempt to put a stranglehold on the performance per watt dialogue currently dominating the chip industry will amuse many.

Not too long, Intel chip executives mocked Sun Microsystems and others when they talked about multi-core products. Intel pitched the move to multi-core as a sign that rivals had given up on their weak, single core designs. During this same period, Intel would often brag that the heat density of its chips would soon equal that of a rocket nozzle and then one day rival the surface of the sun. Grrr.

Overheating? No more

To put matters in context, IBM released a dual-core server chip – the Power4 – in 2001. Intel has yet to release a comparable dual-core, high-end processor. It won't do so until Montecito version of Itanium arrives most likely in September. So, Intel is five years behind the market leader.

Then, you can look at Sun, which began talking up multi-core chips in late 2002. Sun insisted that a disconnect between memory (slow) and processor (fast) speeds had given rise to a need for new chip designs. Sun also began to jump on the "green computing" bandwagon, saying that lower-power processors would help save energy, although it pushed this idea less than the memory disconnect thing back in 2002 and 2003. At this week's IDF, Intel more or less recycled Sun's old slides.

On the x86 front, matters don't improve. AMD, for example, released a dual-core version of Opteorn in April of 2005 that remains the performance per watt and price performance champ to this day for x86 server chips.

Just a couple of months before that launch, Intel did not spend its time talking up a rival dual-core server chip. No sir. Instead, Intel presented the earth-shattering news that it would no longer pursue GHz above all else.

To this day, Intel still does not sell a dual-core server chip with the two processing cores united together on a single piece of silicon like AMD did at launch with the dual-core Opteron. Intel uses crafty packaging to place two single-core chips near each other on the die.

John Crawford, a senior fellow at Intel, presented many of Intel's stunning insights into the performance per watt and multi-core areas during a speech given to researchers at PARC yesterday.

He told a great story, and, for awhile, the PARC crowd seemed to buy it. Then, however, we asked why Intel had in fact been so far behind the competition in both marketing and product delivery on these fronts. Didn't Intel think it could push GHz for a couple more years?

"Why were we last?" Crawford said, repeating our question. "Why were we last? Why were we last?"

This mantra started to make everyone uncomfortable.

"IBM certainly beat the market to the punch," he said.

Crawford, having not come close to addressing our question, moved on to the next topic.

Intel actually supplies its own evidence to show how far behind it was on the power consumption and multi-core fronts. It spent most of the sessions at IDF talking up tricks done to combine instructions, tweak the front side bus speed higher, keep idle transistors quiet and improve memory sharing in an effort to boost the performance of an aging architecture. Why promote the tricks instead of the actual architecture unless that's all you've got?

It may seem silly to talking about an aging architecture given that Intel just revealed the new "Core" designs for Woodcrest (server), Conroe (desktop) and Merom (notebook). Intel also talked up more sophisticated future multi-core designs.

But, as much as Intel likes to downplay things like not having an integrated memory controller and not putting multiple cores on the same die, the fact remains that this is what everybody else is doing. Intel is still stuck in the past.

For the moment, Intel seems to have narrowed the performance gap with AMD and others. Although, it will start to see problems crop up again in the four-core and beyond era due to the issues mentioned above, particularly the lack of an integrated memory controller.

"At some point in the future, we will have an integrated memory controller," Crawford confessed. "That's something we are wrestling with."

(Intel could apparently use some help on the Itanic front as well. "Our challenge there is to maybe catch up on some of the frequency angles in that product line," Crawford said. Although, he did hold out hope that Intel could eventually play in the high-end chip market. "I suppose that some day we will need a 128-bit architecture and then maybe the game could open up again.")

Intel too faces issues as it moves to FB-DIMMs, which provide some nice benefits but also add about 6 extra watts each to a server board via an AMB (Advanced Memory Buffer) . As usual, Intel has a concrete plan for dealing with these issues.

"Intel is working really hard on that," Crawford said. "NEC has an FB-DIMM that is down to 5 watts. Maybe then we can get it down to 4."

(Standard, registered DIMMs eat up about 3 watts.)

This is the same kind of language Intel once used to address the heat issues of its chip. It would point to partners working on new cooling technology and publicly pray that someone discovered something to help the situation.

Closing on a positive note though, Intel has managed to jump on one power-consumption theme at the same time as rivals. Both Sun and Intel have started calling for better, more expensive power supplies.

In a rush to buy the cheapest supplies possible from China, vendors have more or less gone too far. Power supplies that cost just a few bucks extra deliver huge gains in overall energy savings.

Currently, customers have to watch as about 52 per cent of their power evaporates between the wall socket and the actual machine. By 2010, Intel expects major improvements in power delivery to the point where 85 per cent of the energy gets to the box. ®