Paradigm Shift at Intel: IDF Fall 2005

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Sept 5, 2005 by Mike Chin

On one level, finding topics of interest for SPCR was a real challenge at the Intel Developer Forum, Fall 2005, in San Francisco, Aug 23-25. There were very few individual products or product groups that represent any new breakthrough relevant to silent computing. There were very few educational or information sessions of high relevance to silent computing, either.

On the surface, Intel's general press releases and keynote presentations were mostly extensions of policies and commitments made at least six months ago, at the spring session of IDF. These included a somewhat more detailed roadmap on multi-core CPUs, "virtualization", and a confirmation that the Net Burst, long pipeline architecture of the Pentium 4 is destined for extinction.

But when you consider the entire range of changes in focus, product development, and marketing messages at Intel over the past year, especially as they culminated at the Fall 2005 IDF, it does not seem farfetched to speak of a major paradigm shift.

Just to make sure we're all on the same page, here's a clear definition of the phrase, which was coined by Thomas Kuhn in his ground-breaking 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

"Think of a Paradigm Shift as a change from one way of thinking to another. It's a revolution, a transformation, a sort of metamorphosis. It does not just 'happen', but rather it is driven by agents of change."

The paradigm shift I refer to is being driven by Intel in response to technological, competitive and market forces, and it has three major aspects:

  • End of the processor clock race, replaced by multi-core processor development.
  • A focus on performance-per-wattt and power efficiency.
  • New ways of assessing and ranking performance.


For over two decades, Intel has upheld clock speed as the ultimate gauge of processor power. The oft-repeated "Moore's law" — that processor power will double every 18 months — was in some ways a simple reflection of Intel's strategy of achieving ever higher clock speed to drive market demand and to keep ahead of the competition. The strategy worked marvelously for years. Neophytes who know nothing about computers learn the mantra — faster is better! — quickly, and still make system buying decisions based solely on CPU clock speed. In the last 18~24 months, the higher clock speeds of the Pentium 4 helped to maintain Intel's dominance in the marketplace, despite extensive coverage by the tech media that showed better benchmark performance by slower-clocked AMD Athlon 64 processors. One of AMD's responses was to devise artificial "Performance Rating" numbers that try to give buyers a sense of the relative performance of their processors against Intel processor clock speeds.

Intel's decades-old race for ever higher clock speeds came to an end last year when it announced that the planned 4 GHz (and higher) versions of the P4 would not be released. Not only was Intel facing major technological challenges to achieving higher clock speed, the heat generated by their >3 GHz clock Prescott-core P4s had become a liability that met increasing resistance from the rest of the industry due to the high cost in cooling, electric energy consumption and noise.

Multi-core is being upheld as the new ideal, and the new race, as defined by Intel, is to go multi-core everywhere as quickly as possible. By now, most readers are probably aware that IDF Fall 2005, like IDF Spring 2005, was dominated by much discussion about Intel's multi-core processor development.

A major difference between increasing clock speed and increasing the number of cores is that the former tends to lead to linear increases in computing performance with most any program, while multi-core provides better multitasking performance in general, and only gives a speed advantage with programs that are written to use the mutiple cores.

The cessation of the CPU clock race is no small matter. If clock speed no longer defines the greatest processors, then what? Intel's own corporate culture probably needs a major adjustment in perspective, and Intel's marketing and PR departments have a truly great challenge to reassert the company's dominant mindshare without relying on clock speed.

It's easy to argue that Intel is late in accepting that megahertz don't matter for CPU performance. AMD's success at besting Intel's >3 GHz processors with Athlon 64s clocked a whole GHz slower is proof enough, and AMD has been doing it for nearly two years. But AMD never took the marketing initiative with this advantage; they weren't the ones to declare that CPU clock speed doesn't matter. No, they accepted Intel's clockspeed ranking of processors with their "PR" model naming system, which tries roughly to rank their processors in comparison to P4s of specific speeds. (Wikipedia has the best quick summary of AMD's Performance Rating.) One side effect: It's amusing to note that AMD has now ventured into truly virtual marketing with processors marketed, for example, as "4800+" — there is no Intel processor clocked at 4.8 GHz, so the implication is that this processor is as powerful as a P4 would be if it could run at 4.8 GHz.

The simple fact is that despite leading in most measures of processor performance and having won a substantially higher share of the processor market, AMD still does not have a strong enough market or mindshare presence to push through a new metrology for CPU performance that could be accepted by the mass market. AMD never really challenged Intel's long established CPU ranking criterion because it was not within their power to pull off successfully.

Intel did kind of give up on the clockspeed identification of processors a while ago and replaced it with a rather arbitrary scheme that's a nightmare for any consumer to follow. This processor comparison page at Intel gives you a snapshot of the mess: Five separate lines are identified. The variety not only of models but also of naming schemes utilized is enough to make your eyes spin. Just try to sort it out you will see what I mean. Both clockspeed and arbitrary numbers are used to identify this bewildering array of choices. AMD has been criticized for its PR naming convention, but Intel deserves at least as much criticism. In the end, Wikipedia's comment is worthy of note: In conclusion, both raw MHz ratings and the PR scheme are essentially marketing tactics aimed at the naïve consumer.

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