Paradigm Shift at Intel: IDF Fall 2005

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In the opening keynote on the first day of this IDF, Intel CEO Paul S. Otellini brought up the issue of power efficiency:

"Now, performance per watt is very obvious for things that you carry around with you. You want to have higher performance and longer battery life. But increasingly, it's also essential in terms of those needs beyond mobility. It becomes necessary in the desktop and the server markets as well... More importantly, left unchecked, power efficiency and heat generation would have limited the types of devices you build today and the ones that we would be able to imagine in the future.

"So how are we accomplishing this increase in performance per watt? Well, as we've been talking about, we're changing our engineering focus from clock speed to multi-core processors. Multi-core enables us to be able to deliver continued performance without the power penalties that we saw in the gigahertz approach.

"You're going to see Intel combine its R&D innovation, manufacturing and technology leadership with energy-efficient micro-architectures and powerful multi-core processors to deliver unique platforms best tailored to individual needs," Otellini said. "We will deliver 'factor of 10' breakthroughs to a variety of platforms that can reduce energy consumption tenfold or bring 10 times the performance of today's products."

(NOTE: This Intel press release covers many of the salient points of the CEO's keynote. A transcript of the keynote is available as a PDF file, and a video webcast of the keynote is also available at Intel's web site.)

Keep in mind that these comments are from the CEO of the company that started and maintained the clock speed race. Intel first pushed desktop processor power consumption beyond 100W, and at least half of their current desktop processor lineup have thermal design power (TDP) specifications around or greater than 100W.

The visual below is from a press briefing focused specifically on multi-core processor development.

In essence, the increased efficiency will be coming from an adaptation of the architecture used in Intel's current Pentium M processor. Going back to Paul Otellini:

"Today we're shipping two different micro-architectures. One, which is based upon NetBurst for the Pentium 4 and Xeon lines, and has been focused on performance orientation. Another, which is based upon our mobile microarchitectures -- Banias, Dothan, Yonah chips and so forth -- is focused on power performance and is optimized in that environment. Today we're announcing that moving forward, we're combining the best of these two architectures into one to create a next-generation, poweroptimized architecture designed from the bottom up for performance per watt without compromising on the requirements of performance for the given tasks at hand. And it's this microarchitecture that will be the basis for three new dual-core products that we'll bring out in the second half of 2006. They are Woodcrest for servers, Conroe for desktop, and Merom for laptops.

"In 2006 the low end, ultra-low voltage products notebook products, or sub-notebooks will be at five watts. Desktops will move to 65 watts, and 80 watts in servers. This is in terms of TDP."

One architecture for all processor types.

It is probably the first time in the history of Intel that they're projecting a drop in the power needs of future desktop processors with greater computational capability. Take note, this is no marginal drop: 65W is just half the rated power dissipation of the current top Intel desktop processors.

Long term observers of the tech scene will note that the technology of the Pentium M is not new; that processor dates back to 2003, and its roots go back to the Pentium III, which is much older. Regardless, the Pentium M, especially in its current incarnation with the Dothan core, is widely recognized to be the most power-efficient processor ever made. This is in stark contrast to the current generation of Intel's desktop processors, which can easily fry not just eggs but steaks. They are the most power hungry processors on the market today, and AMD's Athlon 64 processors have proven to be substantially better on a performance-per-watt metric, even without "Cool 'n' Quiet", a power reduction feature they cleverly took from mobile computing. At the same time, the A64s have generally had the edge in performance benchmarks. In the last couple of years, AMD won a big chunk of the lucrative hardcore performance / gaming segment with cooler, higher performance processors.

But by redefining processor performance as performance-per-watt and adapting the highly efficient core architecture of the Pentium M for their future desktop processors, Intel immediately gains the high ground. AMD's Athlon 64 architechture is much more efficient than Intel's current desktop processors, but it does not quite match the the Pentium M in this regard. The mobile-optimized Turion, in a notebook environment, is a slightly more capable processor than the Pentium M, but for battery life, it falls behind. (For full details, read the excellent recent article, Clash of the Titans: Dothan vs Turion, by Dan Zhang at the web site Laptop Logic.) AMD will likely be working to develop a processor with the power efficiency of the Pentium M (and its future multi-core derivatives).

An analogy: Imagine if General Motors had developed a small hybrid engined car that routinely achieved 60 MPG. Now imagine GM making an announcement that within a year, all the big gas gizzling cars will be dropped from their lineup, and replaced with high efficiency cars powered by hybrid engines. This is a rough analogy, as it doesn't quite capture the potential market impact ¬ó GM has under 30% of the U.S. market for autos; Intel has about 85% of the world market for processors.

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