Processor Whispers: About hopes and connections
by Andreas Stiller
The merry month of May comes with some financial results from the IT business that bring little merriness to some of the companies concerned. Intel received a minor setback, but it's still active on various fronts, be it Atom smartphones or supercomputers.
For Apple, things are still running quite smoothly, even if the second quarter of 2012, with sales of $39.2 billion and a profit of $11.6 billion, can't match the outstanding results of Christmas 2011. After all, the profits are still twice as high as in the year-ago quarter. Sales-wise, Samsung Electronics – at the same time partner and rival – is slightly ahead of Apple again.
All in all, the Koreans remain this year's market leaders. They recorded sales of more than $40 billion and a new record profit of $4.41 billion in this year's first quarter – well, okay, Apple's profits are still more than two-and-a-half times high. IBM now only plays the seventh violin in the IT "orchestra", behind Samsung, Apple, HP, the telecom giants NTT and AT&T, and Hitachi, which, as a conglomerate, is involved in numerous activities outside of the IT sector. With sales of $24.6 billion in the last quarter, IBM roughly repeats last year's results in this regard, while profits increased by 7 per cent, to $3.07 billion.
Intel in comparison, being a semiconductor company, has to set its sights lower. With sales of $12.9 billion, it echoes the year-ago quarter, just like IBM, but its profits went down from $3.2 billion to $2.7 billion. The poor standing of the Atom processor has contributed to this setback – but there is hope: first benchmark results for the Xolo X900, an Atom-Z240-equipped Android smartphone from the Indian manufacturer Lava, look promising. As for performance and battery life, they can hold up to the ARM A9 competition and even surpass it when running single-thread apps. Only Adobe Flash 11 won't run, which is no small irony considering how Intel had always pointed out Flash as one of the big advantages of the x86 world over ARM ...
Intel is also hedging hopes for financial gains of a different kind, namely, an at least partial reimbursement of the €1.06 billion it has already paid as a fine to the EU. The hearing before the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg will take place from 3 to 6 July. Intel's chances of success don't seem too bad – after all, the European ombudsman has accused the commission of various instances of "misplay", for example, during the interrogation of a Dell manager.
Competitor AMD has no hopes for such a windfall profit right now – things don't look so bright for the company. Its sales stagnated at roughly $1.6 billion and it recorded a net loss of $590 million. This doesn't come as a surprise, though, as the restructuring of the company, driven by Rory Read, which includes lots of firings, is initially expensive.
What's more, the Bulldozer processors haven't exactly been a big success up to now. It remains to be seen whether the second generation, Piledriver, which will be used in the shortly expected Trinity APU, can turn the tide. At least AMD promised an improved single-thread performance, expressed in instructions per clock (IPC), in the Piledriver's roadmap. However, AMD's head of marketing, John Fruehe, had also claimed such improvements for the Bulldozer design, in comparison to the Bulldozer's predecessor – in spite of the contrary reports and warnings from the IT scene, including amongst others, Processor Whispers. After the first benchmark results appeared in autumn 2011, he had to concede, sheepishly, that he was wrong. Since then, to be on the safe side, he hasn't posted anything under his alias JFAMD on the Anandtech forum.
But some things are also amiss at Intel. The Ivy Bridge processor, for instance, not only reached the market later than planned, but it was also more power-hungry. It also gets much hotter than its predecessor, especially when it's overclocked. According to Intel, the reason for the increased temperature is the higher structural density in the 22nm process. Everything is supposed to remain "within the quality and reliability expectations for specified conditions", though. The experts at Chipworks have meanwhile dissected the first available Ivy Bridge chips and examined the 3D Trigate transistors with TEM and SEM (transmission and scanning electron microscope). In some of the pictures, one can spot irregularities with the fins; it might well be that such variations cause an increase in power consumption and heat.
Source: Chipworks For now, Ivy Bridge and Trinity are destined for mobile devices, but Intel doesn't intend to give competitor AMD too much room on the other end of the spectrum, namely, supercomputers, either. AMD's success with Cray's high-end systems had been a thorn in the side of Intel's Datacenter Group, led by Diane Bryant, for quite some time now. One of the supercomputers using Bulldozer processors is Europe's currently fastest civil computer, Hermit, at the HLRS in Stuttgart, Germany. Cray, it's been clear for some time now, will soon also offer systems with Intel Xeon processors, code-named Cascade. But it's not only the processors that matter, the interconnect is of essential importance with supercomputers. In this field, Cray is well positioned with the Gemini and with the upcoming Aries connects. To be among the first in line, Intel has simply bought the successful Cray Interconnect branch including 74 employees for $140 million.
Cray is still "married" to NVIDIA only in connection with GPGPUs – but who knows, maybe there's another change of partners on the horizon, or at least a ménage a trois. In any case, at the upcoming International Supercomputing Conference ISC12 in Hamburg in mid-June, platinum sponsor Intel intends to introduce its HPC accelerator chip, Knights Corner, with a big hoopla. Up to now, NVIDIA's counterpart, Kepler 2 for HPC (GK110), has remained in the dark – instead, NVIDIA has rather surprisingly launched the GX690 with two desktop Kepler chips (GK104) on board – but it would be more than peculiar, if NVIDIA didn't retaliate with Kepler 2 at the conference; after all, it's supposed to run inside the ordered Cray multi-petaflop computers, Blue Waters and Titan, this autumn. Whoever wishes to be present at the showdown in Germany should hurry, the deadline for the early bird discount for the conference tickets is 15 May.