Processor Whispers - About Hard Software and Soft Hardware
by Andreas Stiller
Does Microsoft plan to gain respect with a proprietary processor – for a new Xbox perhaps? Meanwhile, former Xbox partner IBM comes up with new processors for mainframe computers as well as new concept – and new troubles with the EU.
Microsoft’s financial statement is perfect; at $4.52 billion (with a revenue of $16 billion) the Redmonders’ profits continue to be significantly higher than Apple’s ($3.25 billion), in spite of all the gloomy predictions. In comparison, Google’s quarterly profit of $1.8 billion seems almost humble.
Windows 7 alone has sold 150 million copies in eight months – so what’s the big deal with three million iPads in three months? Not to mention Office 2010, Xbox 360 including Xbox Live, as well as cloud computing. A lot of success and yet the corporation has a concern: a popularity problem. Although Microsoft does well in the lucrative enterprise sector, the wider public hardly takes notice: gadgets á la iPhone and iPad win the hearts of the audience.
However, it’s possible that Microsoft will be more active in the domain of the small devices in the future. To general surprise, the software company obtained an architecture license for ARM – after which ARM’s stock price increased by leaps and bounds. Such architecture licences are something really special because they allow the licence holder to change the design according to its wishes. DEC – and consequently Intel – were the first to receive this special licence, for the StrongArm processor. Motorola was the proud number two. Of the five hundred ARM licensees only a handful are known to hold this special licence; among them Samsung, Marvell and Qualcomm – and it’s presumed that Apple has such a licence agreement with ARM, too. Toward the end of last year, Infineon was also elevated into this special group of ARM architecture licence holders, in order to implement its own security upgrades into the core.
So, do the Redmonders really plan to design their own processors? In any case, Microsoft is on the lookout for ARM-experienced engineers for its Entertainment & Devices Division - the one responsible for the Xbox line amongst other things. Also the Microsoft Asia Center for Hardware (MACH) in Shenzhen is restocking. Smartphones for Windows Phone 7? Or maybe tablet PCs? The possibilities are many. The commitment with ARM could also be aimed at a totally different market, like the one for special energy efficient processors for search engines like Bing, for instance. And then again, maybe Microsoft just wants to annoy Intel a little because the Californians have intensified their dealings with Linux. Everybody in the industry, but Microsoft, is puzzled.
The software company Microsoft has had hardware divisions for a very long time – there once was a Z80 card for the Apple II. And where else should employees like Sun’s former chief architect Marc Tremblay spend their time meaningfully? Tremblay now works in the Strategic Software/Silicon Architecture Group (shortened to SiArch), which answers to the division for research and strategy led by Craig Mundie.
Mundie, who once worked at the parallel computer companies Data General and Alliant, has recently given the position of the managing director of the Microsoft Research Labs in Redmond to the renowned computer scientist and former professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Peter Lee. These labs are known for producing interesting hardware projects, usually in cooperation with American universities. One recent example is the BEE3-FPGA platform, which has been a joint undertaking of the Redmond Labs and the Pennsylvania State University. This platform, which is based on a Xilinx-Virtex5-FPGA, was presented at the IEEE-VLSI Symposium where it made an interesting comparison to GPUs (the old Tesla C1060) and CPUs (Core 2 Duo, 3.16GHz) in July. At the examined double precision matrix-vector multiplication, the new platform was not only significantly faster but also a few times more power efficient (measured in iterations per Joule).
With the Xbox processor Microsoft already has a proprietary processor – well, one designed by IBM. However, currently there is absolutely no news concerning new gaming processors from IBM, either for the Xbox 720 or for the PlayStation 4 or for the Wii 2. On the other hand, IBM has again scored with the mainframe computers by presenting the successor to the two-year-old z10. No, it’s not called z11 ... but zEnterprise 196. Its computing performance is supposed to surpass its predecessor by 60 percent while the power consumption is the same. And better yet: it’s supposed to redefine the duties of mainframes – as ruler over an army of x86 and Power7 blades. The main feature here is the Unified Resource Manager, which rounds up all the blades’ resources into one large virtual system. The mainframe can then manage up to 100,000 virtual servers.
Source: IBM Its processor, consisting of 1.4 billion transistors, has inherited the number of cores (quad-core) and functional units from its predecessor and the out-of-order architecture, the 45-nm SOI processor technology and the use of EDRAM for the L3 and L4 caches from the Power7. One ceramic module can now hold six instead of five quad-core processors and, thanks to EDRAM, twice as many caches. At 5.2GHz clock speed, the new processor is also clocked higher – in spite of the complex out-of-order technology. Per core, its integer performance should beat the current Power7. But the latter has twice as many cores and eight times as many FPUs.
Meanwhile, IBM is almost the only one left in the mainframe market. With sales of about $3 billion the mainframe hardware business is relatively small, but together with services, software and storage this market makes up 20 per cent of the overall revenue and 40 per cent of the profit. Consequently, companies like T3 and Turbo-Hercules that emulate the z-hardware on cheap x86 systems, so that mainframe applications work on them – according to T3’s commercials even faster than normally – are a disturbance. And so IBM follows the example of others, such as Apple, by linking the distribution of the operating system to its hardware. But the emulation companies haven’t put up with this and have complained to the American and European commission for competition. The EU has now started to probe IBM over the abuse of market power. A driving force behind this, and maybe even a financial supporter in the background, could be Microsoft. In the scope of the Mainframe Migration Alliance, Microsoft encourages companies to transfer mainframe workloads to Windows computers. Coincidentally, T3 has now received Microsoft’s Technology Momentum Award.