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State Of The Fast Chips

Want processing power? Forget what Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are selling. The computational power of the universe beats any of the two chip makers' products by a wide margin.

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processing chip

According to MIT physicist Seth Lloyd, a leading researcher in quantum computation, the raw information-processing performance of the universe is on the order of "approximately 10105 elementary operations per second on about 1090 bits." How does Lloyd arrive at that number? By calculating the number of protons in the universe as best he can, then determining how often those tiny magnets "flip" directions on their poles to produce a binary digit, or bit—just like transistorized switches on microprocessors do to perform their calculations.

All of which, according to Lloyd, goes to show that the universe is pretty darn smart when running at full capacity in ideal conditions. Of course, those of us who have all too much experience with a universe that does really dumb things (tax audits, anyone?) know that there must be some genuine glitches between the proton-based processor and the motherboard of reality.

So, what does Lloyd's quantum computational work have to do with systems builders? Well, it's interesting for perspective's sake. But also consider what Intel founder Gordon Moore had to say about the possibility of quantum computers at September's Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. In the context of predicting the end of Moore's Law, Gordon speculated that the regular shrinking of microprocessor dies would hit a physical wall in 10 to 15 years. With transistors currently only a few thousand atoms across, we could see something very close to Lloyd's proton processor in our lifetime.

In the meantime, here's what's been happening in chips in the present.

Next: Intel Ticks, AMD Tocks

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Intel Ticks, AMD Tocks
The big news from the x86 giants in September was AMD's release of its long-awaited quad-core processor and Intel's 45nm die shrink.

AMD launched its quad-core Opteron processor—code-named Barcelona—in multiple venues around the world on Sept. 10. For Tier 1 partners, systems builders and hardware resellers, the introduction of Barcelona adds much-needed competition with market leader Intel into the x86 server chip space.

And customers are definitely interested in upgrading to quad-core products from Intel and AMD, say systems builders, even if the refresh cycle isn't happening at quite the pace the chip makers might like.

"People are reading a lot of the coverage [on multicore processors] and they're realizing that the innovations are coming out of Intel and AMD on multi-core chips. On Barcelona, AMD has doubled their floating points and doubled their cores," said Keith Millar, vice president of product management at Liquid Computing in Ottawa.

"That said, we're trying to be pretty much agnostic as to processors and operating systems. The systems we build for data centers are built like a telecom system, where you'll be set for 15 years after we install it. If in that time you switch to a different processor vendor, you'll be fine."

AMD's performance-per-watt narrative is pretty compelling, Millar said, though Intel's edge in clock speed on its quad-cores remains a strong selling point as well.

"You do see people taking a pragmatic view. They realize they will be running some of these systems idle sometimes. Our customers are really profiling what these processors are doing on a daily basis, you know, how much power are they pulling out of the wall," he said. "But are cars still sold on their zero-to-60 numbers? Sure, it's such a tangible number on the spec sheet."

AMD's present batch of quad-core CPUs max out at 2.0 GHz, slower than their Intel counterparts. AMD does say it will have 2.5 GHz quad-cores by year's end. Intel, meanwhile, gave a firm date on the release of its first 45nm products at IDF. Chips built on the new fabrication process will first hit the market on Nov. 12, announced Intel CEO Paul Otellini in his forum-opening keynote.

The Penryn family of smaller dies and the introduction of Intel's new high-K metal gate fabrication process to cut back on power leakage will go some way toward getting the chip leader's processors up to par with AMD's on performance-per-watt, say industry watchers. But the real work on that front will come sometime in the first half of next year, when Intel unveils its Nehalem upgrade.

Nehalem is the code-name for the microarchitecture redesign Intel has planned for the "tock" year of 2008. All indications are that this will involve getting the memory controller onto the CPU die itself and building independent power supplies for each core on multicore products.

In short, it looks like Intel is "going native" in multicore with Nehalem, just as AMD did before its rival, with Opteron.

Next: On The PC Front

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On The PC Front
AMD will launch Phenom, its new brand of quad-core desktop processors, sometime in December, according to sources at the company. But how will AMD's performance-per-watt value proposition play outside the data center and high-performance computer cluster world?

Probably not as well, so AMD is focusing more on clock speed with its initial quad-core desktop offering. The fastest Phenom chips in the initial release will clock in at 3.0 GHz, AMD said.

They better, said Advantage Computers president J.R. Guthrie, because despite all the talk by both AMD and Intel about the "Gigahertz Wars" being over, speed still matters. Especially at the desktop and notebook levels.

"Gigahertz, in my personal opinion, still means something. For our desktop clients we still say, 'You want Core 2 Duo. A $73 Core 2 Duo is available. Want a bump? Go to the e4400,'" said Guthrie, whose company is based in Tucson, Ariz.

"Now, we're also building quad-cores, but how much of that we do is going to depend on what the applications' capability to take advantage is. Apps are still behind the curve," he said. "All the talk about cache isn't as important as clock speed, at least for desktops. When you're going with a server, I put on all the cache I can get," Guthrie said.

AMD also recently announced it will release a triple-core desktop processor sometime in January. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based chip maker believes there is an underserved portion of the market that is moving beyond dual-cores, but not quite ready for quad-cores. Of course, the opportunity to turn suboptimal quad-core yields into a saleable product plays some part as well.

Intel, meanwhile, will roll out the 45nm processor for its desktop and notebook CPUs, in addition to its server chips. And one area where the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip leader doesn't yet have much competition from its smaller rival at all—the vPro and Centrino Pro platforms built for deep-diving remote management of systems—continues to be a huge hit with IT departments, systems builders and managed service providers.

ChannelWeb spoke to AMD sources that said the smaller vendor will have a platform to compete with vPro at some point, but didn't indicate when.

The Long View
Perhaps we won't have the computational power of the universe in our servers and PCs anytime soon, but a look at the Intel and AMD road maps reveals some exciting things.

Both chip makers are working to build chips that contain both CPUs and a GPU on a single die. Whoever gets that done best will likely have Media2Play's business.

"I see the market starting to converge towards a CPU that can run everything, and it'd be nice if operating systems and software applications could take advantage of all these cores and threads in a multimedia fashion. All that power is sitting there idling right now because the apps aren't optimized for multithreaded and multicore CPUs," said Don Allison, owner of the Tucson, Ariz.-based builder of digital media systems.

Allison also thinks digital media management needs to be unlocked from current constraints that don't serve usability.

"It'd be really nice if the computer industry would work with the people running digital rights management to come up with a livable solution that would allow us to distribute digital content in the free and open manner that consumers are demanding. People don't want to have a locked proprietary system or a locked proprietary chip anymore," he said.

Other areas for systems builders and solution providers to keep an eye on include virtualization, low-cost notebooks being developed as part of One Laptop Per Child and Intel's Classmate project, and the Ultra Mobility space.

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