Life Starts At 45nm With Intel's Penryn Chips

In American politics, off-year elections are usually a lot less sexy than even-year polls. By the same token, Intel's biennial die shrinks commonly take a back seat in the buzzmobile to the micro-architecture changes that alternate with such fabrication updates on the chip giant's famous "tick-tock" roadmap.

Not this year, says Intel founder Gordon Moore.

Moore recently called Monday's release of Intel's new Penryn-class 45nm processors "one of the biggest transistor advancements in 40 years." If Moore and Intel are to be believed, the Penryn launch could be seen as the silicon equivalent to California's special gubernatorial election in the off-year of 2003. In other words, with Penryn, Intel is promising us the "Tickinator."

Die shrinks are, of course, at the heart of Intel's core mission to relentlessly put more transistors on smaller dies until the end of time or Moore's law, whichever comes first. But generally speaking, the high-tech industry doesn't get too jazzed about "tick" advances, simply because they are fairly boring in their consistency. What's there to get worked up about when you know what you're going to get?

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The Penryn processors deliver on Intel's pledge to keep ticking in time with Moore's Law. The 45nm chips have nearly twice the transistor density as Intel's 65nm products, meaning quad-core Penryn processors have up to 820 million transistors, the company said in a release.

But Monday's launch represents a whole lot more than just a die shrink, says Intel CEO Paul Otellini. With hafnium replacing silicon dioxide in its transistors, Intel has finally made the long-planned move to high-k gate dialectrics and metal gates, which Otellini says was necessary to extend the life of Moore's Law.

"It's not an exaggeration to say that we were heading toward a premature end to Moore's Law and thus the pace of innovation everyone has come to expect from Intel and our high-tech industry," Otellini told ChannelWeb in an exclusive interview ahead of the Penryn launch.

The upshot, according to Intel, is that this move to hafnium doesn't just facilitate the shrink from 65nm to 45nm and beyond. The new process also increases transistor switching speed, the chipmaker has said, and it greatly reduces power leakage, thus upping performance-per-watt in the Penryn family of products a great deal beyond what's gained from a typical die shrink. Intel has claimed its 45nm chips get a 38 percent efficiency boost over their 65nm cousins.

Intel is also pushing the environmental advantages of its new fabrication process. The process doesn't use any lead, and the chipmaker says next year's chips will also eliminate halogen materials.

Intel's chips will still feature a front-side bus (FSB), at least until the chipmaker unveils its next major micro-architecture overhaul. That project, codenamed Nehalem, is widely expected to produce processors that are architecturally similar to Advanced Micro Devices' innovative "native" chip design that eliminates the FSB. But with Nehalem products at least six months away, the question is whether the better-than-expected energy efficiency in Intel's hafnium transistors will counter what AMD claims is its own significant edge in performance-per-watt.

Probably not, said Source Code's Brian Corn, but major efficiency gains coupled with other Intel advantages such as clock speed certainly put a lot of pressure on Intel's only major x86 processor rival.

"Penryn is going to tighten the performance-per-watt battle up a little, but AMD still has some space ahead of Nehalem next year. And in those memory-intensive applications, AMD still has it," said Corn, VP of marketing and development at the Waltham, Mass.-based system builder.

"That said, we were kind of surprised that Intel is going to have a 3.20GHz quad-core product on a shrunken die. I'm impressed."

Next: Penryn Speeds, Feeds and Prices

Let's take a look at the 45nm chips rolling out of Intel's new manufacturing plant in Chandler, Ariz., known as "Fab 32."

The first two offerings of Penryn-family products include 16 new server and high-end PC processors, priced at between $177 and $1,279 in quantities of 1,000. Included in the mix released Monday are 12 quad-core Xeon 5400 processors with clock speeds ranging from 2.0GHz to 3.20GHz, FSB speeds up to 1600MHz and a 12MB cache. AMD's first quad-core Opterons, released in early September, hit the ceiling at 2.0GHz -- Intel's floor for its new 45nm quad-core Xeons.

The Xeon 5400s, codenamed Harpertown, come in at the same price points and slot to the same sockets as the equivalent "Clovertown" line of 65nm quad-core Xeon server chips, said Intel Enterprise Marketing Director Shannon Poulin.

"We're aggressively ramping up the CPUs. And not only with the HPs, the IBMs and the Dells, but also with the Lenovos and everybody up and down the supply chain. The beauty of it is that the new processors are socket-compatible," Poulin said.

True, the 45nm Xeons are compatible with Intel's 5000 chipset family, but Source Code's Corn still prefers AMD's "investment protection" approach, where each new generation of Opteron processor is designed with the same socket-compatibility as the very first edition.

"Some of the boards we've been selling over the past several months will support 45nm, but not all. AMD did a better job on socket match-up for the life of the motherboard," Corn said.

Three 45nm dual-core chips that will be released Dec. 7 round out the server mix for 2007. The Xeon 5200s have clock speeds of up to 3.40GHz, FSB peaking at 1600MHz and cache sizes of 6MB. A single desktop processor is also included in the initial 45nm rollout, the Core 2 Extreme QX9650 quad-core processor. Specs were not immediately available for the high-performance desktop chip, which is priced at $999-per-unit in 1,000-unit trays and available Monday.

Meanwhile, Intel is also launching three new platforms that support 45nm chips. These include the 5400 or "Stoakley" chipset for high-performance computing (HPC), the 5100 Memory Controller Hub chipset and ICH-9R I/O controller built for reduced power consumption using native DDR2 memory, and the 3200 or "Garlow" chipset for single-processor entry servers.

The chipmaker on Monday will also begin shipping a new 45nm-compatible motherboard to channel partners building high-performance desktop systems. Desktop Board DX38BT for the Intel Extreme Series will sell for under $250 at retail, said Intel North America Channel Marketing Manager Todd Garrigues.

Asked when system builders could expect vPro and Centrino Pro platforms built for 45nm desktop processors, Poulin said while they might possibly be ready in early 2008, "I can't say if they're lined up yet."

As for benchmarks, Intel is claiming several "world records" for its new processors and chipsets in areas such as TPC-C*, SPECint*_rate2006, VMmark and SPECfp*_rate2006. Additional architectural features of the new chips include "47 new instructions that speed up workloads including video encoding for high-definition and photo manipulation, as well as key HPC and enterprise applications."

Intel will unveil more 45nm processors next year. Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad desktop processors are coming in the first quarter of 2008, as are Core 2 Extreme and Core 2 Duo chips for laptop computers.