'Tick, Tock!' Intel fools the clock. Again.

Every year the embedded industry’s seminal events are the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January and the Intel Developers Forum (IDF) in late summer1. CES showcases the latest gadgets that will soon pervade the world (literally!), and IDF portends the fundamental computer tech that will materialize in the following year’s CES. No longer chasing the highest clock speed as a performance metric, Intel continues to innovate around its Pillars of Computing. Here’s what I gleaned from this year’s IDF, held only a week ago in early September 2010 in San Francisco with a record crowd of 6,500 attendees.

CEO Paul Otellini made it clear in the opening keynote that Intel’s Pillars of Performance have morphed into something more realistic for a world of always-on computing, “20 billion” Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs), and an increasingly unsafe world of targeted security breaches and organized crime-based hacks. The new Pillars of Computing are energy-efficient performance, aimed both at battery-operated small form factor doodads and hot-hot data centers; connectivity, including 10G Light Peak optical silicon interconnects and undoubtedly the wireless portions of the recent purchase of Infineon; and security.

Security pillar

The latter is a bit of a shocker, considering a year ago the third pillar was more generically “software.” But Intel has handily absorbed software companies including Wind River and Virtutech (so they say) and is prepping to digest the company’s biggest acquisition ever: the $7.6 billion purchase of antivirus company McAfee. Not much was said about McAfee during IDF, though Doug Davis, VP/GM of the Embedded and Communications Group, stated that McAfee can work with antitheft software and LoJack that can “brick” and locate your laptop, but the right approach for “machines”2 is to “block Day Zero attacks.” He said the whole raft of existing Intel silicon security features such as VT, vPro, TXT, and so on “can be used in a whole different way … wait for 2011.” The plan for the security pillar is to lower the number of attack surfaces, whatever that means. By the way, you might piece together Intel’s security strategy by checking out the technical session “Securing Today’s Data Centers Against Tomorrow’s Attacks.”

Beyond Core i3/i5/i7

Based on Intel’s Nehalem microarchitecture on 45 nm and 32 nm, the Core i3/i5 family (Clarkdale/Arrandale/Westmere) follows the Core 2 Duo family (Penryn) in the company’s classic “Tick” (new product) “Tock” (new technology) model. This year’s IDF was a “Tock” year, and the 32 nm Sandy Bridge microarchitecture was announced. Key innovations beyond Nehalem include:

  • In the processor cores, a decode micro-operation cache turns off the legacy x86 decode pipeline to lower power and increase performance through a shorter timeline. A 50 percent performance increase is obtained by doubling the number of load/store ports to two. Designers completely rebuilt the out-of-order and execution plan and doubled the SIMD instruction set with a 256-bit AVX addition to the SSE instructions for floating-point operations.
  • In the graphics engine, it’s now on-chip instead of an MCM in Core iX devices. There’s double the throughput on shader logic, and many graphics-intensive functions have moved to dedicated logic to lower overall power.
  • Core i3/i5 Westmere devices are the 32 nm shrink of Nehalem, but with Sandy Bridge the Northbridge/graphics are on-chip, allowing a new ring architecture to percolate to mainstream devices. The ring was first seen on Nehalem EX (server) Xeon versions and now runs up to 3 GHz at 96 GBps moving data between cores, graphics, and PCI Express channels.

Atom “all growed … smaller”

Beyond all the “Tock” technology hype, I didn’t expect Intel to announce any substantive new devices or initiatives, but I was wrong. The Nokia/Intel MeeGo initiative buckled under the pressure of iTunes and introduced AppUp, an “apps store” of tools and toys for Atom-based doodads. Today, that’s mostly netbooks and a few embedded platforms, but Intel is clearly targeting cellular handsets with Atom, despite pundits’ views of Atom still being too much silicon against ARM. The best place for Intel software resources is either AppUp.com for MeeGo or software.intel.com for the heavier stuff.

Intel’s message of “Atom everywhere, transforming everything” lies behind their announcement of a six-device Atom roadmap (see Figure 1). The CE4200 Groveland with an onboard H.264 encoder was introduced for consumer devices; the Z6xx dual-core handheld was revisited; Oak Trail for tablets was disclosed, along with a sexy proof-of-concept ultra-ultra-thin Canoe Lake netbook technology mule; and the E600 Tunnel Creek was revealed as the official home for embedded devices. Of particular note, eight versions of Tunnel Creek will eventually ship, including Stellarton with a built-in Altera FPGA sea-of-gates. Which one of these (if any?) will be in a cell phone?

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Figure 1: Intel’s Atom roadmap targets a variety of markets.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

Once again, Intel met my expectations for technology leadership, innovation, and even a surprise or two. At this “Tock” technology confab, the company whet the world’s appetite for Atoms in cell phones, more CPU horsepower in servers and laptops, new embedded security, and a wireless media experience called WiDi (wireless display). The company clearly stopped the clock one more time, or maybe turned it ahead by 12 months.

Chris A. Ciufo Group Editorial Director cciufo@opensystemsmedia.com

1 The Embedded Systems Conferences are must-attend events, but hardly considered game-changers nor the place where innovation first appears.

2 I took “machines” to mean servers, PCs, and all manner of MIDs and embedded doodads.