Processor Whispers: About records and layoffs
by Christof Windeck
The mass layoff at AMD overshadows the launch of the 16-core Interlagos, and speculations about cooperation between AMD and ARM are, yet again, circulating. Meanwhile, Intel gives a foretaste of the next Xeons with the Core i7-3900.
AMD and ARM: The acronyms of the two companies would be a good fit, especially in a triad with the ATI brand, which AMD absorbed in 2006. But is there any truth to it? In a forum, someone claimed the choice between the licence holders ARM (for Cortex cores) and Intel (x86) was equivalent to the choice between pestilence and cholera. As for the x86 chips, AMD finds itself in the boxing ring with an über-gorilla – but at least it's only one opponent.
If AMD was to sell ARM chips, it would become embroiled in an even harder price war: competitors like Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Samsung are already selling millions of SoCs every year. So who would be anxious for AMD to sell some more? Also, it's unfortunate that – of all things – in 2009, ex-boss Dirk Meyer sold the smartphone GPU branch acquired with ATI to Qualcomm, to ease the debt burden. But ARM doesn't want to provide chips only for washing machines, smartphones and tablets anymore; it wants to supply them for servers too: HP just announced an experimental system with Calxeda chips, while NVIDIA plans to equip even supercomputers with ARM technology. The computing power will, though, be delivered by GPUs in that case.
Right now, and without ARM, AMD makes good money with chips for cheap mobile computers, namely the Atom opponents Zacate (E-450) and Ontario (C-60), which are manufactured by TSMC with 40 nm structures and Bobcat cores. Provided the estimates that are circulating on the internet, and which are supposed to have originated from the market research company Mercury Research, are correct, in the third quarter, almost 40 per cent of all AMD processors were Bobcats and they made up 73 per cent of AMD's mobile CPUs. According to the estimates, the GlobalFoundries fab in Dresden, Germany, delivered 30 per cent fewer chips than in the same quarter last year. Although, on average, the TSMC processors are cheaper than the rest of the AMD portfolio, they are responsible for a good quarter of the CPU turnover.
Intel CEO Paul Otellini is apparently whistling in the dark when, in the face of his collapsed Atom business, he claims that $30 Atoms are still more popular in netbooks than $20 Ontarios. That might be true as long as we are really only talking about netbooks, but AMD has long since conquered larger notebooks with its pricier Zacates. And next year, TSMC is supposed to deliver more powerful 28 nm Bobcats with up to four cores – presumably with an integrated chipset and even as a single chip, including USB 3.0. In comparison, Intel's next Atom generation will probably look rather outdated. It will still be using the old NM10 chipset, on which you can't even properly mount a USB 3.0 adapter because it lacks PCIe 2.0.
Actually, Intel had planned to release these Cedarview Atoms with PowerVR graphics quite a while ago, but there are reports of problems with the Windows drivers: DirectX 10 support has been cancelled and even for DirectX 9 the PowerVR developer Imagination Technologies will supposedly only deliver 32-bit drivers at first. In the light of such slip-ups, speculations arise that Intel will prefer to rely on ARM Mali graphics in the future.
But how strongly will AMD be able to take advantage of Intel's Atom weakness? Even if the margin at the TSMC manufacturers is good, more expensive chips mean more profit per chip. Early next year – maybe even at CES in January? – the Llano successor Trinity is scheduled to roll out, also with a super powersaver version for thin sub-notebooks. By the way, with the Trinity inside they cannot be named Ultrabooks, because that's a protected Intel brand. However, company boss Rory Read, who came to AMD from Lenovo, doesn't seem to have high hopes for the near future, or he wouldn't have fired 1400 of his colleagues. Before this, he had already restructured several departments and replaced previous managers with mobile chip and system-on-chip specialists. So far there is no official news about drastic changes to the AMD roadmap; we'll probably have to wait until the Financial Analyst Day on 2 February. There should also be new information available then about the future of the AM3+ socket.
Source: HP At the SC11 supercomputer conference in Seattle, AMD launched the overdue Interlagos Opteron with 16 cores. Bulldozer cores are much better suited for dual-socket servers than for desktop PCs and easily push Intel's current Xeons of the 5600 series aside. But Intel is already shaking its fist, with the Core i7-3960X inside, at AMD: this Sandy Bridge-E with “only” six cores is not designed for servers, but it virtually annihilates the eight-core AMD FX-8150. Also, the die shot of the Core i7-3900 reveals two currently unused cores that Intel will fire up with the release of the Xeon E5-2600: in dual-socket servers, 16 real plus 16 hyper-threading cores will then pit their strength against 32 Bulldozer opponents. Before this race can start, though, Intel will, of course, first have to get the Xeon E5-2600 on the road – this chip is also long overdue. Apparently, amongst other things, there's an issue with the integrated SAS ports of the C600 chipset also known as Patsburg.
The Chinese web site Chiphell.com has meanwhile blabbed some secrets concerning Haswell, which Intel has scheduled as its next micro-architecture “tock” for 2013, succeeding the next 22 nm “tick”, Ivy Bridge, promised for 2012. While the desktop Ivy Bridge alias Core i7-3000 – and yes, the name is meant to be similar to the name of the Sandy Bridge-E – will still be compatible with the LGA1155 boards, Haswell requires LGA1150. Maybe, it will roll out as Core i7-4000 with a DirectX 11.1 compatible GPU. In any case, the corresponding Southbridge is going to be called Lynx Point or perhaps series 8 because it succeeds Panther Point (series 7) or rather the current Cougar Point (series 6).
As for ultra thin Ultrabooks, Intel is said to be brewing up a tiny Haswell bundle: a dual-core CPU including Lynx Point on a multi-chip module that consumes a total of 15 watts TDP. As it's configurable, this number might even sink further – at least if you are willing to sacrifice performance under continuous full load. In any event, Haswell will be exciting, because with AVX2 comes FMA3. AMD can already do multiply-add, in the form of FMA4, and plans to have its Steamroller, the grandchild of the current Bulldozer cores, ready and running in 2013.