New Year, New Processors

Arthur Cole

If you want to know what changes are likely to take place in the enterprise over the next few years, a good place to look is the silicon level. After all, everything we take for granted in virtual and cloud environments is possible only because of advancements in semiconductor and microprocessor technology.

But while much of the attention is shifting toward the ARM architecture in light of its low-power capabilities and broad deployment on mobile platforms, there is still quite a lot of activity in high-power chips, even those targeted in laptops, netbooks and other portable devices.

According to Gartner, worldwide semiconductor is slated to gain 4.5 percent in 2013, hitting $311 billion. However, part of this is due to a downward revision in the 2012 market as weak third and fourth quarter results brought full-year sales to about $298 billion. Much of the slowdown was attributed to slow PC and smartphone sales due to a combination of over-supply and dwindling demand due to ongoing economic uncertainty. However, the company expects a return to normalcy in the second half of 2013 and into 2014.

Intel, of course, remains the top chip producer even as low-cost, low-power ARMs from a variety of manufacturers continue to make inroads into traditional x86 markets. Intel has struck back with its own low-power Atom processor, but it is poised to introduce a new higher-power device, the Core i Haswell, for both desktops and laptops in early 2013. The i 4000 line will consist of three quad-core designs ranging from 2.7 to 3.0 GHz and buffed with the company's Hyper-Threading technology and the HD 4600 graphics processor.

Meanwhile, AMD recently introduced new versions of its Opteron family, designed to provide high-performance at low cost for enterprise-class server environments. The Opteron 3300 and 4300 lines range from two to eight cores and are built on the same socket designs of current 3200 and 4200 platforms, enabling a relatively simple upgrade process. At the same time, AMD is claiming a 24 percent improvement in performance per watt and 15 percent less overall power consumption compared to previous Opterons. Prices range from $174 to $501.

These are all run-of-the-mill upgrades to existing platforms, however. A truly significant advancement would involve, say, a means to more closely integrate on-chip data handling with what is happening in the surrounding environment. And Intel seems close to commercial production on just such an architecture that provides a means to process optical data without having to convert it to electrons. The company says it has a lab version of a "nanophotonic" process capable of pushing processors into the 25 Gbps performance range, with the potential for mass production within a few years.

Moore's Law may have finally peaked in terms of IC design, but there is still plenty of headroom when it comes to boosting overall processing power and tailor chip designs to certain types of workload. In the future, it seems that the single, dominant chip architecture will give way to more specialized approaches.

Yes, Virginia, still matters.



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