Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/12/14/intel_tick_tock/

'You'd have to be nuts' to think AMD can match our tick – Intel

Eyeing Sun's Niagara flow

By Ashlee Vance

Posted in Hardware, 14th December 2006 18:23 GMT

Intel has confirmed plans to "tick" and "tock" AMD into submission.

Beer in hand and in belly, we listened to Intel's latest AMD-hammering pitch during a session Wednesday with company executives in San Francisco.

Rather than going biblical, Intel has gone metronomical, vowing to overwhelm AMD with a regular "cadence" of product releases that run on a "tick tock" fashion. The tick tock relationship centers on Intel thumping the market with a new chip architecture – the tock - and then following that with less dramatic, more pragmatic manufacturing process, core, voltage and cache shifts – the tick.

Intel has been banging on about this strategy – that's really more of a tock tick than a tick tock – for quite awhile, and we've obliged the chip maker by publicizing its talking points. Consider it a holiday gift.

With its new, tocked "Core" designs crammed into the market, Intel now plans to focus on the pragmatic part of its equation, moving quickly from 65nm manufacturing to 45nm.

"From our perspective, 65nm is kind of old news," said Intel manufacturing chief Tom Franz.

AMD, well behind on the 65nm front, looks to shrink the usual two-year lag between process generations by moving to 45nm within 18 months. Intel executives, however, characterized the 18-month plan as a figment of AMD's imagination until the rival chip maker can prove otherwise.

"They are so dreadfully behind," said Intel SVP Pat Gelsinger, adding that "you'd have to be nuts" to think AMD will come close to beating Intel to any manufacturing milestones.

To Gelsinger's point, Intel has been relentless on the fabrication front. It has more manufacturing muscle than any other chipmaker on the planet and does not seem to slip with its chip production, as it has done with design. Such manufacturing strength translates into better, cheaper product.

Muscular factory skills were all Intel had to brag about after a "pretty ugly" period, stretching from 2004 to the middle of this year. It could produce a lot – too many as it turned out – of ho-hum desktop and server chips. But that did the company little good.

More recently, market share figures show that Intel stopped the server chip hemorrhage – a fact not lost on the often thick analyst community.

"I was very pleased to read that a number of analysts have downgraded AMD," Gelsinger said.

Gelsinger's bravado stems from Intel's recent release of four-core chips, and the company's ability to pull in some of the "tick" designs such as low voltage chips that cater to a specific part of the server market.

Looking ahead, Intel may have more niche chips in store. The company has watched Sun's release of the multi-core UltraSPARC T1. Sun moves close to $100m per quarter of UltraSPARC T1-based boxes, making the servers a breakthrough for the company after years of stagnation.

Gelsinger questioned whether such sales figures warrant calling the UltraSPARC T1 a success by asking, "You call that a success?"

But, the chip seems to have done well enough to get Intel thinking. The company may well produce its own low GHz, multi-core server part targeted at web and application serving.

"We are looking at it," Gelsinger said.

Intel, however, doesn't seem ready yet to go as far as Sun's upcoming 16-core Rock design. That chip will appear in 2008 and compete with IBM's dual-core Power6 chip and likely a four-core version of Itanium from Intel. For the first time in quite awhile, high-end server customers will see serious diversity on the processor front.

Throughput monsters

For Intel, single thread performance remains a focus in the Unix – or mainframe replacement, as Gelsinger calls it – part of the market. So, the chipmaker expects its Itanium cores to be speedier than those found in Rock. In fact, Gelsinger relegated Sun's Rock systems to the realm of specialized "throughput monsters." Intel appears to be assuming that Sun will keep its deal in place with Fujitsu over the long-haul for more mainstream versions of SPARC.

Gelsinger conceded that Intel would like to win back some of the high performance computing (HPC) business it lost to AMD over the past two years. The openness of AMD's architecture has prompted third parties to create products such as FPGAs that slot right into Opteron sockets – that's attractive to the HPC crowd.

AMD's play forced Intel to open up with the company announcing similar FPGA deals with Xilinx and Altera in September, as first reported by The Register.

"Part of the reason we did that was to counter some of those wins," Gelsinger said.

The company will announce more similar licensing deals "when we move to our next generation architecture (in 2008) as well," the executive added.

Intel's greatest mistake over the past two years was "letting (AMD) in" to markets once owned by the giant. "It is a struggle now," said Dadi Perlmutter, Intel's mobile chip SVP.

With its clock all wound up, Intel thinks it can make the best out of today's new reality. The company will try to thwart analyst predictions of AMD taking as much as 40 per cent market share in the server processor segment from coming true. Rather, Intel hopes to beat AMD down from where it stands today. ®