Sockets, cores and threads, oh my
Intel's silicon brick roadmap
Intel gave us lucky hacks a post-Nehalem launch briefing to outline aspects of its near-term processor roadmap. Here's a fast-paced tour through the briefing content.
Intel reassured us that it could see Moore's Law progression being maintained for another ten or so years with the process shrinks and other developments in its roadmap. The inexorable rise in transistor counts on dies, 731 million with Nehalem quad-cores, should continue over that period. The big issue is people comprehending how to use parallelism.
Intel Server Processors
Intel's server platforms groups covers several markets: high-performance computing (HPC), internet data centres and the cloud, RISC migration, storage and the virtualised data centre. Its building blocks are CPUs, chipsets, the LAN, SSD/RAID, boards/KDKs and software. Its processor platforms are Itanium (9000 series) for mission-critical servers, Xeon 7000s for high-end enterprise servers, Xeon 5000s for mainstream enterprise quad- and dual-socket servers, and Xeon 3000s for single socket SME servers. Obviously Xeon 7000s and Itanium compete in everyone's eyes but Intel's.
Much was made of Intel designing in virtual server support features to hopefully get apps running in virtual machines running as fast as apps running in a non-virtualised server.
We had a quick romp through the Xeon 5500's features and then got to the interesting bit, Westmere-EP, the next-generation Nehalem (5000 series) processor built with a coming 32nm process. Westmere is basically a Nehalem shrink onto the 32nm process.
It will have six cores, cache enhancements and better energy efficiency, and will be announced in 2010. Also it will be socket-compatible with the 5500, so server vendors can use existing server boards and plug Westmere processors straight in. The graphic showed a PCI 2 bus linking Westmere to an Intel X25-E SSD, and an Intel 10GbitE controller.
Intel has a tick-tock analogy for its engineering developments. A "tick" is a process shrink using the current micro-architecture. The last tick was the move to the current 45nm process technology. A "tock" is the introduction of a new processor micro-archictecture and Nehalem is the latest tock event.
It will be followed by the 32nm tick which will, in turn, be followed by the next micro-architecture after Nehalem.
On the 7000 front the 7400 is a 6-core 45nm processor that's socket-compatible with the previous 7300. It will be followed by Nehalem-EX in the second half of this year and then Westmere-EX some time later.
Nehalem-EX, built on the 45nm process, is an 8-core processor designed for 4-socket platforms, meaning 64 threads (2 threads/core still). It will use an Intel Scalable Memory Interconnect with Buffers and what Intel called next-generation I/O technology with virtualisation.
There will be Intel VT technology in the processor (VT-x), the chipset (VT-d) and for the network (VT-c). The idea is to get these components working better together so that server vendors will go all-Intel instead of using third-party chipsets and communications interfaces. Thus there's no need for a Fibre Channel over Ethernet adapter, a CNA, because these VT features plus Intel's software FCOE initiator will get the Intel 10GbitE NIC spurting out FCOE packets at near wire speed to direct-attached devices.
There will be Virtual Machine Device Queues (VMDq) to improve throughput by offloading data sorting to the NIC. In a virtualised server the virtual machine (VM) will more or less talk directly to the NIC without having to go through the hypervisor. (Naturally that means the individual VMs in the server use CPU cycles to do the FCOE work though. Why Intel doesn't go for FCOE-offload is beyond me. It tried to do the same thing with TCP/IP offload, saying there was no need, and pretty much lost that argument.)
Intel has introduced Flex Migration so VMs can be readily transferred between different Xeon servers. Previously, notwithstanding instruction set compatibility between 3000s, 5000s and 7000 Xeons, VMs could only be moved between similar processor types.
We can expect a Nehalem version of the 3300, probably the 3400 and probably later this year or in 2010.
Intel discussed its business client intentions and the results of a survey about what people were looking for, but there was nothing in it specific about desktop processors. So moving right along, we'll mention a couple of items from the mobility session that applied to desktops.
Desktop processors will transition to the Nehalem micro-architecture. Later this year or next we will see Lynnfield (4 cores, 8 threads) and Clarkdale (2 cores, 4 threads, integrated graphics) processors for desktops. Clarkdale will use the coming 32nm process from Intel but still be Nehelem micro-architecture CPUs.
Notebooks, Netbooks and other MIDS
These market sectors are served by Intel's Mobility Group. It sees new products coming, such as quad-core notebooks, hardware security, and more ultra thin and light, MacBook Air-type notebooks, which need physically smaller processors. These ultra-thins should provide the full PC experience, enabling you to use them to create videos and edit photos.
It wants ultra-thins to become mainstream and venture out from their expensive, high-end rarified niche.
Montevina is Intel's current mobile platform. It is the fifth-generation of the Centrino platform (moble chipset + mobile CPU + wireless interface) and is also known as Centrino 2. The CPU is an Intel Core 2 Duo, codename Penryn, using 45nm process technology.
Next up is the Montevina Plus platform offering longer battery life, use in ultra-thins, better visual quality and improved wireless. The processor will be a higher speed one, running at 3.3GHz, and will also use less power, operating in a 10 watts or less thermal design power envelope. That, Intel says, reduces the need for a heat sink and cooling fans.
The system will automatically detect playback of 24fps recorded video and translate this to the screen's refresh rate to avoid playback artefacts.
As with desktops there will be a notebook processor transition to Nehalem's micro-architecture. Later this year or next we will see Clarksfield (4 cores, 8 threads on the 45nm process) and Arrandale (2 cores, 4 threads, integrated graphics, on a 32nm process) processors for notebooks. The Montevina Plus platform will include these new notebook processors, which will be 40 per cent smaller than equivalent desktop processors.
The Atom (Z5XX Series) chip, with its 47 million transistors, is now one year old. Intel reassured us that netbooks were not cannibalising notebook sales. In other words Atom-powered devices aren't sucking higher revenue sales away from Centrino and Core Duo notebooks, much to its relief.
Intel expects to launch its next mobile Internet device (MID platform), codenamed Moorestown, within the next 20 months. It says this should extend the smartphone market and drive the development of the Communication MID. We can expect new hardware designs, more applications and functionality ranging from GPS and Mobile TV through to Skype-to-Skype voice and video calls.
Moorestown will be comprised of a System on a chip (SOC), codenamed “Lincroft”, which integrates the 45nm processor - Intel did not say Atom processor by the way, graphics, memory controller and video encode/decode onto a single chip, and an I/O Hub codenamed "Langwell", which supports a range of I/O ports to connect with wireless, storage, and display components. Several Intel people said Intel was becoming more of a SOC supplier.
Intel intends that Moorestown will deliver an “"Always Connected" wireless experience, with support for 3G, WiMAX, WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth and Mobile TV. It will also offer a 10X reduction in electricity needed in idle mode.
Intel also pushed Moblin, the open-source mobile Linux platform it supports, impressing on us that low-cost components, including the OS, are essential for low-cost netbooks and other MIDs. However, the majority of shipped Intel-powered netbooks run Windows XP. The majority of customers have a netbook alongside an existing desktop or notebook.
According to a T-Mobile presenter, we could expect Smart Pads to be a focus for the next six to nine months.
Paranoid Intel powers on
Intel wants to kill the RISC processor market. Eight-core Xeon 7400s will be its latest battering RAM to assault the RISC castle keep doors. Whether it will be enough depends on IBM (Power 6+) and Oracle with whatever the Oracle-ised SPARC people come up with.
At the low-end Intel wants to see Atom everywhere but is eschewing multi-core designs because they'll blow its power envelope away, leaving a hole for Qualcomm (SnapDragon) and other members of the ARM processor army to pour through.
Then, of course there's AMD which is not dead by any means. Otellini's army is not all-conquering and God forbid that it ever should be - death by Intel PowerPoint is bad enough already. ®