With Hyper-Threading, A Single CPU Works Double-Time

Intel's new technology promises up to 30% performance improvements
Intel's plan to introduce technology that lets a single processor take advantage of software designed for dual-processor environments could help the vendor maintain its lead over Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and challenge Sun Microsystems for a bigger share of the departmental server market.

Intel unveiled the technology, dubbed Hyper-Threading, last week at its developer forum. It's part of the chipmaker's campaign to build chips that have more to offer than simply raw speed. "We need to change the pattern of our investment ... and think beyond megahertz," Intel executive VP Paul Otellini said during his opening keynote at the San Jose, Calif., event.

Hyper-Threading could mean performance improvements of up to 30% vs. comparable Intel processors that don't use the technology, the company says. "It's an economical way of getting a significant bump in performance," says Tom Bradicich, chief technology officer for IBM's eServer xSeries Intel-based servers. Bradicich says IBM is seeing an average increase in application performance of 20% in test systems employing Hyper-Threading.

Chips equipped with the technology will be able to manage incoming data from different applications, continuously switching from one set of instructions to the other. Intel says a number of software developers, including Microsoft, have pledged support for Hyper-Threading, which will be available next year on Intel's 64-bit McKinley server and workstation processor.

Analysts say Intel may be on to something big. Hyper-Threading "gives Intel a chance to chew up the competition because it's a feature no one else has," says Rob Enderle, a Giga Information Group analyst. Hyper-Threading could make Intel processors more compelling than Sun's Risc-based UltraSparc chips, he says, though he cautions that the technology has yet to prove itself in the field.

For now, speed is still Intel's No. 1 weapon. Last week, the company demoed a Pentium 4 running at 3.5 GHz, and Otellini said Intel's current microprocessor architecture has the headroom to eventually hit 10 GHz.