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.

Alexander Wolfe, Contributor

December 11, 2009

12 Min Read

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.

Intel, AMD Take Multicore To Next Level

Only five years ago, dual-core processors were a stretch. Today, quads are the norm. In 2010, Intel and AMD seem intent making six- and eight-core designs the multicore norm. In May, Intel took the wraps off an eight-core Nehalem EX processor, to be officially known as a Xeon 7400 when it hits the streets in 2010.

In June, AMD unveiled a six-core Opteron, which began appearing in servers shortly thereafter.

Ex-AMD Chairman Hector Ruiz Exits The Scene

Hector Ruiz, the former AMD CEO who moved over to run AMD's chip-manufacturing spinoff GlobalFoundries in March, was forced to take a leave of absence in November after being caught up on the periphery of a Wall Street insider-trading scandal.

Ruiz succeeded AMD founder Jerry Sanders as CEO in 2002. He had a significant impact, and is credited with leading a technical resurgence, which saw AMD launch its Opteron server processors in 2003. That family was hailed as innovative, as it was the first to combine 32- and 64-bit capability in the same chip. It also put Intel on the defensive for a period of time.

However, Ruiz was never able to translate that technical leadership into sustained positive financial performance. Ruiz was succeeded as AMD CEO by Dirk Meyer in 2008. The spinoff of GlobalFoundries, which Ruiz moved over to lead, was inspired by AMD's desire to shed the heavy balance-sheet burden of having a semiconductor fab on its main balance sheet. GlobalFoundries is merging with Taiwan-based Chartered Semiconductor, one of the world's biggest independent chipmakers.

As for Ruiz's exit, here's how our own Antone Gonsalves reported it:

"In late October, the Wall Street Journal named Ruiz as the person who allegedly shared insider information with Danielle Chiesi, a defendant in the criminal case in which hedge fund Galleon has been charged with trading on insider information. All of the defendants in the case have said they are innocent. Ruiz has not been named by prosecutors and AMD and GlobalFoundaries have said they are not aware of any criminal misconduct by any current or past employees in the case. "

Ruiz's leave of absence will culminate with a resignation taking effect January 4.

Intel Launches Nehalem Server Processors

In March, in what was billed as its most important launch in a decade, Intel rolled out the first processors based on its next-generation Nehalem microarchitecture. Those first quad-core Xeon parts were pressed into service in servers which Intel pitched as perfect for the brave new world of cloud computing and virtualized data centers.

Since the announcement came against the backdrop of a recessionary economy, Intel used the New York launch event to emphasize the importance of technology as a game-changer, even when the business chips are down. That was the angle Intel executive VP Sean Maloney hammered away on when I interviewed him: "Most industries are very dependent on competing in cyberspace," Maloney said. "Unless you're prepared to invest in that, you're going to fall behind your competition. So holding off investing in a recession can be a dangerous strategy."

Maloney's words are important, because in many circles he's seen as the potential successor to Intel CEO Paul Otellini. I mined that meme in a September column, which examined how Intel's painful effort to diversify x86 processors for PCs and servers has been Otellini's biggest challenge. Otellini made diversification a strategic priority for the company when he ascended to the top post in 2005.

Otellini successfully led Intel into multicore processors, and has overseen the launch of the successful Atom netbook processor. While Otellini has some runway ahead of him -- he's only 59 -- it'll be the job of the next CEO to push things farther.

Maloney gained ground among tea-leaf readers on September 14, which a reorganization saw Intel's operating structure realigned on two main fronts. In design and development, all the major product groups were consolidated into the newly formed Intel Architecture Group, which will be run by Sean Maloney and Dadi Perlmutter, a well-regarded Israeli-born engineer who heretofore led the Mobility Group responsible for the creation of Intel's Atom netbook processor.

As for the new Nehalem Xeons launched in March, Intel followed up in May with an eight-core Nehalem EX aimed at the very high-end server market.

AMD Launches 'Istanbul' Opterons

For years, AMD's marketing message has centered on the fact that how much you pay to power and cool your data center is just as important as the "hotness," computationally speaking, of your chips. Against this backdrop came AMD's July announcement of its Opteron server processors. Along with a new, high-performance microarchitecture, AMD led with the news that three of the SKUs were low-power designs. Even more significant was that AMD was first to field a six-core CPU.

"These new lower power Six-Core AMD Opteron processors feature the highest performance-per-watt that we have brought to market, and help drive down power consumption while addressing the shifting cloud and Web landscape of today's data center," AMD server vice president Patrick Patla said in a statement .

AMD Preps Fusion Processors

AMD's future may hinge on the success of its upcoming Fusion, a bold new microarchitecture combining the traditional CPU and a graphics processor on a single chip. AMD previewed Fusion, which won't be available until 2011, in November.

The graphics portion of the equation comes from ATI Technologies, the company AMD acquired for $4.2 billion in 2006. In a major restructuring, AMD in May took ATI from a standalone operation and folded it into the company, to streamline operations and help stanch the parent's losses. Intel Broadens Atom Beyond Netbooks

Intel has had a huge success with Atom, the downsized processor which powers most of the world's netbooks. I dove into that earlier in the year in an interview with Stephen Smith, VP of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group. I was curious about whether Atom atomizes laptop chip sales. Intel said no:

InformationWeek: Tell me about the netbook side, where you have your Atom processor.

Smith: For Atom, we took a completely different approach. Rather than have our mainstream architecture scale even further, when we move to this new class of device, we need to move to sub-5-W power. We took a clean sheet of paper approach. We designed a machine that's targeted to get down to sub-watt thermal performance levels that you need for a mobile Internet device or I'll call it a few watts that you need for a netbook or for a fanless embedded machine. So we used the latest technology, 45 nm, precisely because that gives us the best energy efficiency. But we did a ground-up, purpose-built machine that we could configure as either a single-core or a dual-core product. Uses the existing chipset infrastructure and has been very rapidly adopted by these netbooks.

InformationWeek: Is Atom stealing sales away from laptop processors?

Smith: Adoption has been faster than our original forecasts and we actually had to react to put in place more assembly and test capacity to get them out the door. Netbooks have moved very quickly. It really hasn't had any impact on our traditional notebook business. We see it as a new category and a new line of business for us.

In March, Intel tipped plans to take Atom beyond its netbook beachhead and apply it to all sorts of embedded applications. These include automotive entertainment and mobile Internet devices.

Intel is developing a line of Atoms tuned for these different apps, in partnership with Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturer TSMC. If Intel is successful in broadening Atom's appeal, that will go a long way towards meeting CEO Paul Otellini's strategic objective to diversify the company beyond PC processors.

Intel Acquires Wind River For $884 Million

In a year-end retrospective, who knows what to make of this one? On the face of it, Intel's announcement in June that it would buy embedded systems software vendor Wind River Systems for $884 million was huge.

Intel's acquisition certainly must have been welcome news to Wind River's shareholders, who had seen the company buffeted during the early part of the decade. Like many embedded vendors of proprietary software, Wind River had been undercut by low-cost open-source software.

From Intel's perspective, the deal was clearly not about getting a vendor whose wares it could sell, but rather to increase its in-house expertise in the embedded and mobile markets it plans to stake out with devices such as Atom.

The deal was completed in July and Wind River became a wholly owned subsidiary.

AMD Tops Top 500 Supercomputer Rankings

In July, AMD earned more kudos for Opteron when a Cray XT5 system at Oak Ridge National Laboratory topped the prestigious Top 500 supercomputer list. The system, which is equipped with six-core Opteron processor is benchmarked as having a top peak performance of 2.3 petaflops. Ranking high on the supercomputer list gives AMD bragging rights for its technology. The system the Cray displaced, an IBM Roadrunner, also uses Opterons, though it's a hybrid design which includes IBM's own PowerCell processors.

Follow me on Twitter: (@awolfe58)

Let me know your take, by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me directly at [email protected].

Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.

InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on the public cloud, digging into the gritty details of cloud computing services from a dozen vendors. Download the report here (registration required).

About the Author(s)

Alexander Wolfe


Alexander Wolfe is a former editor for InformationWeek.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights