Will Intel Launch 45nm Chip At IDF?

AMD launched its first quad-core product, the next generation of Opteron x86 processors, to great fanfare Monday. Now all eyes turn to Intel and its anticipated Penryn announcement, as well as a lot of speculation about Nehalem, the next generation of processors from the leading chipmaker that is scheduled to debut in 2008.

Penryn is a tech refresh that features a few enhancements to Intel's dual-core chip architecture, but is primarily a die shrink, said Brian Corn, VP of marketing and business development at custom system builder Source Code in Waltham, Mass.

Intel's most recent Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Extreme processors will be the first to get the 45-nm treatment. Corn said that product should hit the system builder channel in four to six weeks. AMD's 45nm quad-core die shrink, codenamed Shangai, is due out in late 2008 according to the chipmaker's roadmap.

"Penryn is going to start hitting the market in the fourth quarter. It'll have a few enhancements on the core with the instruction sets. We're going to see product in the channel sometime, maybe late third quarter, but probably more like late October or early November," he said.

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Nehalem will be a much bigger deal, Corn said.

"They've talked about a redesigned core. It's a major technology change, not just a die shrink. The rumor in the industry seems to be that Intel is going to get away from that north bridge-south bridge architecture and maybe even get a memory controller on the chip," he said.

Such changes to its architecture would be a clear sign that Intel takes AMD's performance-per-watt value proposition seriously and is doing everything in its power to ship a product that competes with the Opteron on energy savings as well as performance. AMD's Barcelona launch focused primarily on its native quad-core Opteron design, which eliminates the front-side bus, puts the memory controller on the chip itself and features independent power supplies for each of its four cores and the memory controller to maximize performance-per-watt.

"Intel's all on-board with this price performance-per-watt narrative," Corn said.

"Intel's reacting. They're doing well on some of the wattage areas, and on the performance. They got their quad-core out well before AMD. Now with AMD's whole wattage argument, you're going to see Intel come out with something that competes. I wouldn't be surprised if they go to a DDR3 [random access memory technology], which would be a much lower wattage per DIMM [dual in-line memory module]."

If Nehalem takes on memory in that fashion, it would indicate Intel might be feeling challenged by AMD's edge with memory-intensive workloads.

"It's hard to tell with the benchmarks just yet, because [AMD's quad-core] Opteron was just released, but it seems that with high-memory workloads, the Opteron is pulling away, and in some cases quite handily," Corn said.

"Currently, Intel's gone from DDR2 to a fully buffered DIMM. And one of the pieces of criticism they got was that the wattage draw suffered. With direct-connect architecture on bus, Nehalem is going to be better on memory-intensive applications."

Corn said the competition between Intel and AMD over the past few years had been a great boon to the channel.

"The long and the short of it is that this is a great time for consumers to be buying processor technology. And it's been unbelievably great for the channel. We're able to take advantage of this stuff way faster than the Tier 1's. When Intel can put its price for quad-core at relatively the same price as for dual-core, it's really given us a huge advantage over the Dells, the HPs and the IBMs," he said.

With processor technology progressing so quickly, custom system builders have an edge over the big OEMs, because smaller partners can often get their new systems shipped faster in increasingly tight technology cycles, Corn said.

"In the past, typically those Tier 1 guys were seeing the technology faster than us. Now we're seeing the advantage moving towards us. We're able to ship platforms faster than them. Intel went from a single core to dual-core to quad-core in less than a year. If you took a snapshot of the industry today, you'd never have seen something like this happening in the past, over a single year," he said.

It's uncertain how deeply Intel will go into its Nehalem plans at IDF. The chip leader isn't pre-briefing the press ahead of the conference, according to a spokesperson.

Meanwhile, the speaker slate looks set to fill seats at San Francisco's Moscone Center for the Sept. 18-20 event. Intel CEO Paul Otellini will open the conference with a keynote and chip visionary Gordon Moore headlines a list of speakers that includes Intel's first CTO Pat Gelsinger, who created the very first IDF, Intel mobility mavens Dadi Perlmutter and Anand Chandrasekher, and software chief Renee James.