High-profile developments on the processor landscape this year included aggressive multicore designs, research to put data centers on chip, and a surprise antitrust settlement between the dueling semiconductor vendors.
In picking the top processor stories of the past 12 months, it becomes obvious that 2009 was a transitional year for chipmakers. Clearly, the settlement by Intel and AMD of their ongoing antitrust and patent/licensing disputes was the single biggest business story.
On the technical front, there were significant architectural advances--including aggressive multicore designs, low-power CPUs, and research to put data-center-class power on a single chip. Intel unveiled Nehalem and AMD launched Istanbul. Still, it appears to this observer that the best is yet to come, as advanced graphics capabilities are woven more tightly into processors and platforms.
With luck, that'll be the focus of next year's wrap up. Here now are the top 10 chip stories of 2009:
AMD and Intel Settle Antitrust Dispute
In a moment of enlightened business self-interest, Intel and AMD on November 12 suddenly ended years of embittered legal wrangling, in which AMD charged Intel with monopolistic practices and Intel sued AMD over alleged licensing and patent violations. (Or maybe they laid down their virtual arms because AMD has been wracked by losses and Intel figured there was a 50-50 chance it could lose in court.)
The two companies announced an antitrust settlement under which Intel agreed to pay AMD $1.25 billion, and the two also signed a five-year cross-licensing deal.
While the agreement puts an end to face-to-face litigation, a $1.5 billion European Union antitrust fine against Intel still stands, as does a New York State antitrust lawsuit against Intel.
Intel Investigates Data Center On A Chip
While four cores is the standard footprint for production processors (they'll be moving to 6 and 8 cores in 2010), Intel's laboratory silicon takes multicore design well into the double digits. In December, Intel showed off a 48-core CPU. Mostly this was an interesting, experimental chip. Intel emphasized its built-in power management technology and its high-speed on-chip network to speed interprocessor communications.
Presumably because such design bullet-points aren't sexy enough, Intel characterized the processor as a "single-chip cloud computer." In his story, our own Antone Gonsalves wrote that Intel is calling it a cloud computer "because its design resembles the organization of data centers used to support cloud-computing environments that deliver services over the Web."
In my blog, I pointed out that a cloud on a chip -- research item though it may be -- is on a continuum with today's highly virtualized servers. Thus, it isn't anything out of the ordinary, and we may well expect to see such designs in product form in the not too distant future.
I also noted that Intel chief technology officer Justin Rattner had talked about something similar, but broader -- a data center on a chip -- in a recent interview.
Rattner: We just won the best-paper prize in the Symposium on Operating System Principles with our collaborators at Carnegie Mellon on something called FAWN, which stands for "fast arrays of wimpy nodes." It's the idea that, if we could build tomorrow's processors out of arrays of relatively simple cores, we could deliver data-center-class solutions. It would be data centers on chips, and then arrays of those chips.
InformationWeek: Does this set up a possible race between virtual and physical processors, because with the chips you're talking about, you'll have so many physical cores you won't need virtual instances?
Rattner: If an individual core is so inexpensive, why go to all the trouble to virtualize it? Just allocate some number of physical cores to the problem. What we're also trying to understand is, what leads to the most energy-efficient solution? Am I more energy efficient if I take a big core and virtualize it many ways than I would be if I took lots of simple cores and handed them out as the workloads demanded? I can't tell you what the answer is, but things are looking pretty good for the small cores.
Server Market SplitsvilleJust because the server market's in the doldrums doesn't mean innovation has ceased. Far from it -- server technology is enjoying the biggest renaissance since the dawn of x86 systems. But the primary driver is now service providers, not enterprises.