Processor Whispers: About old chestnuts and new challenges
by Andreas Stiller
Intel invests heavily in Europe, AMD faces mounting problems, the entire industry pins its hope on Windows 8 and Apple promises the workstation community something really big – for later.
It's a pity, the Higgs boson has (probably) been found and the neutrinos are moving as they are supposed to. As far as physics are concerned, everything continues in the same old way. It's a different story with chip production though, where supposed physical boundaries are crossed again and again, especially in the field of lithography. Intel plans to create structures down to 15nm with crude 193nm laser light and numerous magic tricks. Still, eventually the transition to EUV will become necessary if the ambitious roadmap goals are to be met. And the suppliers will have to keep pace. In order to ensure that the most important partner, the Dutch company ASML, makes good progress with the challenges posed by EUV and large wafers with a diameter of 450nm, Intel has bought 10% of it for a total of $2.1 billion. Additionally, Intel has contributed $1 billion to a joint R&D program and intends to acquire another 5% of the company's stock at a later date. In total, ASML wants to sell a quarter of its stock to customers. After the great downturn in 2009, when nobody invested, ASML recovered quickly, achieving sales of €5.6 billion and a profit of €1.5 billion in the past year. That's more than the Japanese competitors Canon and Nikon combined.
Through these heavy investments in Europe, and the decision to build its next big chip factory in Ireland, Intel is surely raising its popularity with the European Commission, which, following the hearing at the start of July, now has to decide if the fine of €1.06 billion for anti-competitive practices will be upheld in full. Intel's chances that the fine will at least be reduced aren't bad.
Google is another company currently at loggerheads with the EU, but it has now decided to seek an amicable solution and has offered to adjust its practices related to online search. Furthermore, the company is also trying to calm things down at home. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have agreed on a fine of $22.5 million for "disguised" cookies in Safari. That's not much when compared to the $500 million Google had to pay to the Justice Department last year, but it's still the highest fine the FTC has ever imposed on a single company.
Data protection is a tricky topic. Back in the 90s, we had the uproar concerning processor serial numbers. In contrast, serial numbers and trusted platform modules (TPM) will soon be a standard in many upcoming smartphones and tablets, and few people seem troubled by this. At least, that's what Microsoft is demanding for Windows 8 tablets with Connected Standby, which is most likely what caused AMD to license ARM's TrustZone technology. In mobile devices, a separate TPM chip (like Infineon's SLB 9635) is rather cumbersome, and the level of integration is needs to be as high as possible. That's why the specification for TPM 2.0 (also known as TPM.next), expected by the Trusted Computing Group (TCG) and pushed by Microsoft, anticipates implementations in which the firmware and certain hardware units of systems-on-chip cooperate on the task – with ARM, that's TrustZone.
Intel is already equipping some of the Z line Atoms with "Smart & Secure Technology" (S&ST). That's the case with the smartphone Atom Z2460, for instance – in the UK and in France, the Android device is now available from Orange – and probably also with the Z2760, Clover Trail, which is designed for Windows 8 tablets with Connected Standby and also uses LPDDR3 SDRAM, to allow for long standby times.
What's disquieting about Intel's Smart & Secure Technology is the lack of official documentation. Until now, Intel has disclosed only that some cryptosystems are supported – AES, 3DES, RSA, the usual suspects – and that a secure element is involved. The latter can also be used for contact-free payment via NFC, and Intel is cooperating with the smartcard specialists from Giesecke & Devrient in this context. ARM, in contrast, provides extensive documentation for TrustZone, even if a manual on how to create a TPM 2.0 implementation with it is still missing. Surely AMD is working hard on it. After all, the company intends to sell more tablet chips in 2013; originally, a Bobcat SoC with USB 3.0 had been scheduled for this year (Krishna).
The PC market needs Windows 8, otherwise the entire industry will be facing difficult times. According to figures from Context, sales declined almost 17% in Europe in April and March. AMD was hit especially hard and had to cut its sales forecast by 11%.
While Apple is the technological leader in many fields, the company's workstations are a real disappointment. The new Mac Pros neither have Xeon-E5 processors nor up-to-date graphic cards: no PCIe 3.0, no DDR3-1600, no USB 3.0 or even Thunderbolt. Something hidden under the hood? No, even under Lion (Darwin 11.4.0), the Pros still don't benefit from state-of-the-art memory management with NUMA. Ironically, on its web site, under the bullet point "up to 12 cores of raw power", Apple presents the STREAM benchmark that would give this away; however Apple doesn't indicate the absolute values, which would be normal practice, but only a factor relative to the predecessor. With Intel's Composer 11 for Mac OS X (which is used by Mathematica, for example), we have measured 27.8GB/s. A comparable Fujitsu system manages about 37GB/s with the same Xeon-E5645 processors, thanks to NUMA, under Windows and Linux. And using Bootcamp to switch to Windows doesn't help either, the Mac Pros are "hard" configured for non-NUMA (with cacheline interleave), unless someone finds an EFI hack.
However, Apple is always good for a surprise. At its recent developer summit, Tim Cook consoled the disappointed Mac Pro community with "don't worry" and announced "something really great" for next year – maybe something with Intel's Xeon Phi or NVIDIA's Kepler? The GPU interface OpenCL came from Apple, after all and it is integrated into Mac OS X.