Processor Whispers: About spinning ships and circling carousels
by Andreas Stiller
Curiosity successfully soft-landed on target on Mars. But other flagships, like the Itanium, are facing more difficulties and there are turbulent times ahead for the teams of other chip makers too.
With a successful landing, Curiosity has avoided turning the NASA project into a new way to burn $2.5 billion dollars in the Mars atmosphere. Silly misunderstandings over which measurement system to use caused 1999's Mars Climate Orbiter to succumb to such a fate after mixing up calculations of pound force with newtons. And it's not alone; wrongly placed hyphens in navigation software or a simple overflow error making the ship spin so it has to be blown up shortly after launch.
The stories surrounding Intel's former flagship, the Itanium, are a bit curious too. The apparently prematurely published entries for the new Itanium 9500 (Poulson) in Intel's databases are gone again, for now. Instead, Intel has made the "Itanium Processor 9500 Series Manual", for software development and optimisation, available on the web site. That's just what Oracle's programmers will need because Judge James P. Kleinberg of the Santa Clara County Superior Court has ordered the company to continue to port its product suite to the Itanium platform as of 20 September 2010. The judge found it proven that Oracle has not complied with the agreements made after it acquired Sun and after it hired the former HP CEO Hurd, and has instructed Oracle to offer its product suite for the Itanium platform as long as Hewlett-Packard sells Itanium-equipped machines – he didn't say anything about prices and product quality though. The commitment could last for up to two more decades, even if the end of the Itanium era should really arrive with the Kittson processor, which can be expected to make its debut around 2014. Well, after all, 15 years of supply security is the industry's usual standard. But who knows, maybe the new Itaniums will fare much better than anticipated, awakening to new life.
The signs are bad, however: SAP is also jumping the lurching Itanium ship and has already announced that it's not going to offer SAP BusinessObjects for HP Integrity servers any more. Related enforceable agreements with HP apparently do not exist. SAP has enough trouble with Oracle as it is, because of the corporate-theft case in connection with its former subsidiary TomorrowNow. After various trials, the two companies have now reached an out-of-court agreement: SAP will pay Oracle $306 million in damages. How fitting – this way Oracle will have the necessary cash to pay for the development of the Itanium software.
Meanwhile, Intel's former mobile group executive, Anand Chandrasekher, who had fallen out of favour last year, has returned to the IT stage – as chief marketing officer at Qualcomm. Here, he'll meet some former colleagues from AMD, like Eric Demers, formerly CTO of AMD. And Qualcomm appears to be on the rise. Although, according to Strategy Analytics, the company has lost some of its market share in the smartphone chip business (down to 44% from 51%), the overall market has grown by a sweeping 55% to almost $2.5 billion, leaving Qualcomm with a considerable gain nonetheless. The next in line are Samsung, Texas Instruments, Broadcom and, a surprise entry, the Chinese company MediaTek, which managed to beat Marvell for fifth place.
Another ex-Intelian, Pat Gelsinger, who had once been considered by many to be the top candidate for the succession of Intel boss Otellini, will soon take on a new position as well. Three years ago, he quite unexpectedly and suddenly left Intel ahead of the Intel Developer Forum and, after 30 years working at the company, joined EMC Information Infrastructure Products as president and chief operating officer. Here, amongst other things, he has been responsible for the storage giant's technology partnerships with the industry's leading companies, like Intel, SAP, Microsoft and VMware – and has probably also played a part in the recently announced cooperation with Lenovo. On the first of September, Gelsinger will take over the CEO position at EMC's subsidiary VMware. Before then, he will be giving a keynote on the topic of "Cloud Transforms IT" at the upcoming Hot Chips conference. Whether the current boss at VMware, the long-time Microsoft manager Paul Maritz, will retire or maybe even replace EMC CEO Joe Tucci soon, remains to be seen.
Apart from many important people leaving AMD, there are also a few interesting new old ones joining the company, like the well-known Jim Keller, who participated in designing Apple's A4 and A5 processor. Keller had already been a colleague of Dirk Meyer at Digital Equipment, where, starting in 1997, he helped him with the design of the Athlon 64, in particular with the HyperTransport. In due course, he arrived at P.A. Semi, a start-up with many former DEC employees, which designed an energy-efficient PowerPC clone. Unfortunately, once the chip was ready, the intended primary client, Apple, simply decided to use another architecture. However, Apple later bought P.A. Semi, and so Keller came to Cupertino. Now, as head of AMD's processor division, he doesn't have to drive far to get to work, just a few more miles, to Sunnyvale. And he already knows his new boss well, because CTO Mark Papermaster has also worked at Apple.
In any case, interesting tasks await Keller at AMD. At the Hot Chips conference at the end of August, AMD will be presenting a few hopeful designs, like the Jaguar chip and the Steamroller, and providing further details about the new Trinity APUs. Some APU versions for low-cost workstations have now been announced under the names FirePro A300 and A320. They come with 3 Piledriver cores and 384 shaders (see "stream processors") with full OpenCL, OpenGL and DirectCompute support. According to AMD, they are supposed to deliver a higher graphics performance than NVIDIA's discrete entry-level card Quadro 600. In fact, the A300s are accelerated mobile Trinity chips (like the A10-4600M) with a significantly higher energy consumption (65 to 100 watts). The other important difference is the workstation-compliant drivers (AMD Catalyst Pro) for OpenGL. Maybe the future also holds an A380 version in collaboration with Airbus, with a significantly higher number of cores that will make the APU take off.