Processor Whispers: About British companies and non-British succession
by Andreas Stiller
Intel boss Otellini has announced that he will retire from the position of chief executive officer in May next year. At the same time, Intel buys up a British technology company that works with ARM Cortex and media processors, and Intel's GPU partner Imagination Technologies intends to swallow MIPS.
It's not unusual for an Intel CEO to quit before reaching the retirement age of 65. In the 43-year history of Intel, all of Otellini's predecessors have done so: Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, Andrew Grove, Craig Barret. What's unusual is that Intel's board of directors doesn't have a successor to present at this time. Traditionally, the selection would be that of the chief operating officer (COO), who would have been trained for this important leadership position for years – just like Grove, Barrett and Otellini. Consequently, it would be COO Bryan M. Krzanich's turn now; the 52-year-old chemist joined Intel after receiving his bachelor's degree in 1982.
The British Sean Maloney, who was sidelined by a stroke two years ago, was originally considered heir to the throne. Other candidates who are believed to have good chances to become the next CEO are software boss Renée James and head of the architecture group Dadi Perlmutter, whose development department in Haifa once got Intel out of the Pentium 4 mess.
Source: ZiiLabs Right now though, Intel is in a mess again, and that might very well have been a reason for the board to push Otellini to step down. The last quarterly figures didn't look so good, and the Atom designs that Otellini promised would offer "twice-Moore's-Law" performance are slow in coming. So Intel still hasn't been able to develop a resounding remedy against ARM. And firing Chandrasekher last year, former head of Intel's mobile branch, hasn't changed anything in this regard.
The integrated graphics of Atom SoCs like Clover Trail or Medfield haven't been a big success either. As Intel didn't manage to develop an energy-efficient solution for DirectX, OpenCL and OpenGL on its own, it licensed the PowerVR designs of the British company Imagination Technologies, just like Apple did. And to make sure no time is wasted, Intel Capital has meanwhile obtained 14.5 per cent of Imagination; Apple only owns 8.7 per cent. However, the investment alone doesn't help, you also need know-how – proper drivers, for example.
Imagination Technologies is currently considering buying up ARM's competitor MIPS, which was founded by processor legend and Stanford president John Hennessy. The MIPS architecture is also popular in China. The Loongson 3B, for instance, is based on this architecture, and, at the next ISSCC, the Chinese are going to show off the 32nm chip Loongson 3B-1500, whose eight cores are supposed to manage 172 Gflops of floating-point performance at only 40 watts TDP – which would make it more than twice as efficient as the Sandy Bridge-EP.
The MIPS deal was all but done and dusted for $60 million, but someone else made a better offer at the last minute – No, not Intel, but Ceva, a DSP developer with offices in California and Israel. Its mobile DSPs are used in radio modems, and most likely also in the ones made by the Intel branch that had previously belonged to Infineon. So it remains to be seen whose hands MIPS will end up in.
Intel has apparently been looking for more GPU and ARM driver knowhow in England, with success: 25 miles south of Imagination, close to Heathrow, there is the Creative-owned company Ziilabs – formerly 3DLabs. Without further ado, Intel paid Creative $50 million for the whole development team and various technology licences. Ziilabs has developed so-called StemCell SoCs, with up to 96 media processing cores, which produce 58 Gflops of floating-point performance in an energy-efficient way, including drivers for OpenGL ES 2.0 and Accelerated OpenCL 1.1.
By pure coincidence, the CSX600 processor from ClearSpeed, intended for HPC acceleration and capable of managing 50 to 66 Gflops depending on the clock speed, also has 96 cores. ClearSpeed resides around 50 miles from Ziilabs, in Witney near Oxford, and although it has ceased further development, it's administrating patents and licences. As coincidence would have it, various of ClearSpeed's former developers now work at Ziilabs. ClearSpeed's previous CTO, John Gustafson, had moved to Intel, but recently he became the head of AMD's graphics branch – it's a small world.
From Intel's point of view, the most important locality in the vicinity of London is probably Cambridge: home of ARM. Because of the British, processor prices are threatening to drop so low that Intel is supposedly already considering stopping supplying middle-class chips for sockets within a few years. Just like the current 17 watt and the future 10 watt CPUs for Ultrabooks and tablets, desktop processors would then also be soldered onto the motherboard – the chip usually is the same anyway, and for more money one could then maybe increase the clock speed, use more cache or unlock additional cores.
But ARM is also pushing into the server sector. At the supercomputer conference SC12 in Salt Lake City, ARM had its own booth for the first time, but ARM designs were everywhere, peering forth like mushrooms among trees: for example, the Energy Core modules from Calxeda inside microservers from HP, Boston, Penguin Computing, and also inside the "Zinc", which Dell provided for the Apache Software Foundation. The Seco developer board Carma with NVIDIA Tegra 3 and Quadro 1000M could, for instance, be found inside a 12-node cluster from E4.
The EU project Mont Blanc at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center presented its current prototype – not with NVIDIA technology, like the Carma, but with Samsung's Exynos 5, and thus Cortex-A15. Dell showed off the project Copper with Marvell's Armada XP, the ancestors of which include Intel's XScale. But those are all preliminary stages: eight companies are currently developing 64-bit ARM SoCs. It will still be one or two years before they are ready, so Intel's next CEO will still have some time for countermeasures.