Processor Whispers: About contras and ultras
by Andreas Stiller
AMD's Bulldozer will arrive a little later, the tablet wars rage at Computex, and Intel implements new security features into its processors and plans to defy Moore's Law with the accelerated development of its Atom.
The numerous boards with AM3+ sockets presented at Computex might have to remain empty a little longer than anticipated – at least until the end of July. According to the as yet unconfirmed information that Anand La Shimpi of Anandtech managed to elicit from Taiwanese board manufacturers, the Bulldozer is still facing some problems in the current B1 step, particularly concerning performance. Before launch, AMD intends to get rid of these problems with a new stepping (B2). In doing so, AMD will still remain within the old launch schedule – it's only the hoped-for early roll out that won't materialise. In any case, AMD should have its hands full and draw sufficient attention at Computex with its new Llano processor, a Phenom with integrated DirectX 11 graphics.
And AMD might even be able to take advantage of the hold-up by integrating Intel's newest security feature, SMEP (Supervisor Mode Execution Protection) – which the next processor generation Ivy Bridge will come with – into the Bulldozer processor. SMEP allows you to prevent code being executed in the unprotected user space from the supervisor mode (ring 0). Such callbacks are a welcome foothold for malware to latch onto and use to obtain supervisor privileges.
This shouldn't be too difficult and, formerly, could probably have been done with the segments of the Protected Mode. But this mode, introduced with the 286 processor, has meanwhile been consigned to the trash can of obsolete technology in almost all operating systems. For security, the Protected Mode was clearly superior to the flat addressing mode with paging which has prevailed. Consequently, some touching up with the likes of No Execute or SMEP has become necessary.
Source: Intel The Linux kernel makers are already spiritedly working on the implementation of SMEP, though it's still unclear if and when Windows will follow. Microsoft may be too busy completing Windows 8 for ARM (now often referred to as "WARM"), which is scheduled for 2012, to take care of such x86 niceties. Also, there are more important matters concerning the x86 Windows that Microsoft has to deal with, like the NUMA disaster and the disadvantageous processor groups pointed out in the previous issue of c't.
In any case, Microsoft's first public demonstration of a Windows 8 test build running on tablets with ARM processors is expected at Computex. And all the little internet birdies are telling us that tablets are surely not the end of it. Of course, Microsoft, ARM, NVIDIA and the rest also have an eye on the netbooks and small notebooks market – very much to the discomfort of Intel. The corporation counters with numerous tablets with Oak Trail, mostly presented with MeeGo or Android – although Intel actually developed Oak Trail specifically for Windows. At the end of last year, Intel boastfully announced 35 tablets, but it's likely there will be nowhere near that many at Computex. At the same time, Intel never tires of pointing out that the highly valued tablet market doesn't constitute a serious threat to the other markets, not even if it surpasses the 100 million mark and cannibalises 33 per cent of the netbook market by 2013. Even then, according to Intel's finance boss Stacy Smith, the growth of the addressable PC market would be 11 per cent. Neither does Smith want to categorically rule out the possibility that Intel might act as a contract manufacturer for non-Intel chips. According to her, this matter will still have be thoroughly discussed and analysed.
Besides, Intel has new roadmaps, new processors and a new marketing term: ultrabook. Wasn't there an UltraSPARC notebook from Tadpole with the same name? But that was a long time ago; today Tadpole belongs to the armaments group General Dynamics and the trademark has long since expired. Just like it already did successfully with the netbook, Intel now intends to introduce a popular name for the market segment above the netbooks. Instead of 25 watts the design goals for the next generation are 10 to 20 watts. With that, the Ivy Bridge chips are entering the territory of the Atoms, which, in turn, will have to move down, like the new Atom N435 with 1.33 GHz for the ASUS Eee PC X101. After three years in which Intel didn't change much in Atom architecture, the next three years are supposed to bring new Atom generations with a velocity that defies Moore's Law: Saltwell (32 nm), Silvermont (22 nm) and Airmont (14 nm). Silvermont and Airmont will probably feature Intel's Tri-Gate transistor technology.
As much as Intel, AMD and the rest exert themselves, there are still task areas where even whole legions of processors have to calculate for endless amounts of time. Here, fundamentally different concepts are necessary, like quantum computing. Four years ago, the Canadian company D-Wave presented their prototype called Orion. It worked with 16 quantum bits (qubits), but chief executive officer Rose euphorically announced that chips with 512 and 1024 qubits were "coming soon". Then, however, there was hardly any news from the Canadians, until last year, when they emerged like a phoenix from the ashes, reporting on their D-Wave One system that had since grown to 128 qubits. Unfortunately, they faced a very sceptical community that doubted whether their solution was a quantum computer at all. Since then, D-Wave has released more publications and Science recently conceded that their computer is "at least a little quantum-mechanical". But, much more importantly, D-Wave managed to secure a first buyer – the Lockheed Martin Corporation. What the armaments group plans to do with it hasn't been revealed. After all, the group paid a hefty 10 million dollars for the computer that comes with a complex liquid-helium cooling system – a sum that can buy a proper supercomputer.