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IDF Fall 2008: Through the Silent Glass

The 2008 Fall Intel Developers Forum in San Francisco came and went last week. Here is a summary of the highlights, as seen through the SPCR glass. In a nutshell, it was Atom, SSDs and Core i7.


August 25, 2008 by Mike Chin

The Fall Intel Developers Forum has been held for many years at the West building
of the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco. There’s usually at least one
or more major PR attractions to capture journalists’ attention beyond Intel’s
latest and greatest technology. The biggie this time around was a space shuttle
on the third floor. No, not the NASA space shuttle but a smaller, DIY
spaceship called the Hermes, developed by Morris Jarvis, an American private
citizen who does not have any megacorporations or government agencies behind
him. What was this novel thing doing at IDF? Trying to attract enough attention
to raise the $1.5 million needed by its progenitors to complete, and lend a
bit of PR zing for Intel, who is helping out with technology of all sorts, including,
not surprisingly, microprocessors to help the spacecraft in flight. Star
Systems
‘ goal is give anyone who wants to go into space (and… uh… has
enough money) the opportunity to do just that.


The Hermes Spacecraft features many low power, off-the-shelf Intel chips such as the EP80579 integrated processor SoC and the Atom processor.

Another curiosity in the hall was an eclectic historical display of Intel processor
development. Among them were ingots of silicon
— looking like other-worldly remnants from meteorites or props from old
X-files sets — which I’m sure few, if any, of the attendees have ever seen
before. This is an early starting point of all those bazillions of chips in
computers.


The business card-sized sign reads “Very rare 2-inch purified silicon ingot”. The white spots and other streaks are reflections off the glass case.

Moving on to the heart of this season’s IDF, three items stand apart for SPCR:

1. The wildfire success of the low cost, low power Atom processor. It’s
being integrated into every type of small computing device, from net-tops
(small web-centric desktops), to ultraportable notebooks, mobile Internet
devices and even high-falutin’ mobile phones. All this is astonishing for
a product only released half a year ago.

2. Intel’s entry into Solid State Drives: It is surely going to both
intensify competition and development in this sector, and drive prices down
faster. For the other SSD makers, it has to be like the 800-lb gorilla stomping
into your corner of the jungle.

3. Intel’s newest CPU, Nehalem, now renamed Core i7, is new in a plethora
of ways. Its architecture is based at least partly on the existing Core Duo
/ Quad processors, but it also incorporates hyperthreading, an new LGA socket
with 1366 pins, and new technologies for better management of both power and
performance. Benchmarks on performance and power run by third parties in workshops
at IDF as well as in previews by Anandtech
and Hexus
have shown that when it is released to market in the next few months, the
new chip will clearly take over the x86 processor crown from Intel’s current
top models and likely keep AMD struggling to catch up for some time to come.

ATOMIC WILDFIRE

When the Atom 230 was first introduced in March, it seemed an unlikely Intel product: A very low power (under 4W TDP), 1.6 GHz, single-core, hyperthreaded processor. It was embedded with Intel’s 945GC chipset in a mini-ITX board, the D945GCLF, but also sold to numerous partners in a variety of component forms. Currently, there are some two dozen consumer-level ultraportable devices which utilize the Atom, and at least as many “nettop” (mini PCs). Intel stated that there are over 700 projects involving the Atom, and that demand has far exceeded supply thus far.


Just a few of the dozens of ultraportable notebooks powered by the Atom 230 processor.

Aigo P8880 is one of many Mobile Internet Devices powered by an Intel Atom processor. This model offers a full slide-out keyboard, WiFi + CDMA 1X connectivity and a GPS among its many features.

The original target market was ostensibly emerging markets in the developing
world where low power, low price, small size and basic functionality are most
important. The reality, however, is that sales to the developed and developing
worlds are evenly split, because of new demand for net-tops, ultraportable notebooks
and MIDs, especially among consumers who already have one, two or more PCs.
It would be nice to think that these Atom-powered devices are being sold to
buyers in place of bigger, more power-hungry, low-end or starter PCs, but this
is unlikely to be true; such consumers are usually far less informed about the
latest tech gear and make much more conservative buying decisions. No, most
of these Atom-powered devices are going, at least in the developed world, to
people who already have lots of computers. As such, the new small and light
tech sector represents new growth potential to help make up for the rapid decline
in traditional desktop sales, which increasing notebook sales is not fully compensating.

A new dual-core variant of the Atom is also being introduced. Dubbed the Atom
330, it will be embedded in a new Intel mini-ITX board, the D945GCLF2,
which appears to be identical to the original D945GCLF, except for the CPU,
which will have two cores and cache increased from 512kb to 1024kb. Current
Atom/945GC systems can only handle up to about 720p video playback; the CPU
upgrade might help future systems achieve 1080p hi def playback, which is important
to some users. The original board has been criticized as having a chipset that’s
too power-hungry; it draws considerably more power than the CPU and must be
fan-cooled, unlike the CPU. The new board will probably be criticized for the
same trait. The Atom 330 will undoubtedly be released to Intel’s partners for
use on other boards.


The D945GCLF2, featuring a dual-core Atom and the same 945GC
desktop chipset as the D945GCLF, will be released in September.

The tremendous buy-in from the industry and the sheer numbers may make it seem
as if Intel invented the embedded low power sector, but VIA
Technologies
has been keeping it percolating for years. Now with Intel’s
Atom splashy entry, the sector may never be the same again. VIA is making efforts
not to let Intel dominate the headlines. A refresh of the C7 VIA processor,
timed just before the start of this IDF, has led to a new name, Nano. Reviews
of the latest Nano embedded boards by Trusted Reviews, HardOCP, Hot Hardware,
and Ars Technica have concluded that the VIA chip/board performs substantially
better than the Atom 230. However, the Atom may have the advantage of lower
power demand, making it much more suitable than the Nano for UltraMobile PCs
or MIDs where cooling is at a premium. Regardless of the nuances of market reactions
to the Nano and the Atom, with Intel’s clout and far more attractive pricing,
VIA’s largely unchallenged dominance of the mini-ITX / low power sector is probably
over.

INTEL’S SSD LAUNCH

A whole range of Intel solid state storage products were announced to the tech
press at IDF. The targeted applications range from servers, workstations, desktops
and notebooks, to netbooks and nettops, MIDs and a slew of commercial and industrial
embedded products.

Why is Intel getting into the SSD business? The answer is that there is a business
opportunity which Intel is well-positioned to exploit, and great potential for
performance gains for any computing device that currently uses a conventional
hard drive (HDD). This slide from Intel’s press presentation pretty much covers
it:


Over the past 12 years, CPU performance improved 175 times while HDD
performance improved 1.3 times. Where’s the bottleneck?

It’s obvious that HDD performance is the biggest single bottleneck in PC performance,
and anyone who has replaced a slow old operating system drive in their desktop
with a newer faster one can attest to the difference even a small improvement
can make. SSDs offer random access times that are orders of magnitudes faster
than HDDs, and higher sustained throughput. Intel’s claim is that they will
offer the highest performance and reliability. Numerous slides and comparisons
were shown to demonstrate the superior performance of these drives over both
other SSDs and high performance HDDs in server, workstation and desktops. Many
multimedia presentations on SSD are linked on this
Intel page
.

The items of greatest interest for consumers were the high performance SATA
models, which are divided into two categories:

1. X25-E Extreme SATA: Latest generation native SATA interface with
advanced architecture employing 10 parallel NAND Flash channels equipped with
single-level cell NAND Flash memory for extreme overall performance and reliability.
With powerful Native Command Queuing to enable up to 32 concurrent operations,
these SSDs deliver higher input/output per second and throughput performance
than other SSDs and drastically outperform traditional hard disk drives. They
also feature low write amplification and a unique wear-leveling design for
higher reliability, meaning they not only perform better, they last longer.
32GB and 64GB models in 2.5″ form factor. The following key specs tell
much:

Sustained sequential read: up to 250 MB/s; Sustained sequential
write
: up to 170 MB/s
Read Latency 75 microseconds
I/O Per Second (IOPS) Random 4 KB reads: >35,000 IOPS; Random
4 KB writes: >3,300 IOPS
Power Consumption Active: 2.4 W typical (server workload1); Idle
(DIPM): 0.06 W typical
Operating Shock 1,000 G/0.5 ms
Life expectancy 2 Million Hours Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF)

2. X25-M and X18-M Mainstream SATA: These models appear to have the
same basic technology as the X25-E Extreme, and differ mainly in slower
write speed and shorter life expectancy. They come in 2.5″ and 1.8″
form factors, in 80GB and 160GB. Key Specs:

Read Speeds: Up to 250MB/s; Write Speeds: Up to 70MB/s
Read Latency 85 microseconds
Power consumption Active: 150mW Typical (PC workload¹); Idle
(DIPM): 0.06W Typical
Operating shock 1,000G / 0.5ms
Life expectancy 1.2 million hours Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF)

Consumers have every reason to react with good cheer. The HDD has been the
biggest bottleneck to PC performance for years, a source of mechanical unreliability
and noise. Acceleration of SSD development and its broad adoption will be great
for both low noise and high performance computing. In reality, a SSD can boost
the speed of almost any functional PC to near state-of-art. The wait of 12 or
13 ms for typical data access in a 7200RPM HDD is an eternity compared to the
sub-0.1ms access times of SSDs. RAM is finally cheap enough that anyone can
afford to have plenty, and processor performance has been far beyond that of
other components for years. The obvious, massively satisfying upgrade for almost
any PC is a SSD. It has the capacity to transform every user’s experience.

Intel provided press members with a non-working sample of a 1.8″
SSD. A few press members opened one up immediately after the conference, presumably
to snap and post photos of the innards, which consist of electronics that you
can sort out only if you’re in the microprocessor manufacturing business. Here’s
one that’s still intact. (I was promised a working sample to review very soon.)

The one critical missing information about Intel SSDs was price. Price is everything.

The pricing and availability of solid state drives has been improving quite
rapidly over the past 18 months, with many retail brands introducing new products
at ever lower prices. Some popular brands, such as OCZ, are currently offering
64GB 2.5″ SATA SSD for well under $300. This is still an order of magnitude
higher per GB than any conventional hard drives, but way lower than the pricing
of more serious enterprise-oriented brands which can easily run over $1,000
for a 64GB model. However, user reports on the cheaper SSDs suggest an alarming
number of failures and unreliable performance. So where Intel SSD pricing falls
is critical. Intel says we’ll find out within a month when their SSDs begin
shipping.

NEHALEM / CORE i7

How this latest high end Intel CPU became Core i7 is just another marketing
tale. That it will maintain Intel’s substantial performance lead over AMD is
clear. Information about Nehalem was scattered throughout IDF Fall 2008, and
with every demo and info snippet, the dominance of Intel in the x86 chip sector
seemed more assured.

There are numerous, highly detailed discussions about Core i7 architecture
elsewhere on the web, and rather than try to duplicate other tech writers fine
efforts, links to a sampling of such articles follow:

Inside
Nehalem by Daniel A. Begun – Hot Hardware
– Mostly a walk-through
guide of an Intel slide presentation about Nehalem, but is worthwhile as an
introduction.

What
you need to know about Intel’s Nehalem CPU by Jon Stokes – Ars Technica

– This is a succinct, well-written piece on the core features that the new
architecture will eventually bring to Intel’s entire x86 processor line.

Nehalem
– Everything You Need to Know about Intel’s New Architecture by Anandtech

– The usual everything including the kitchen sink analysis by Anand, who already
published a preview of Nehalem benchmarks during Computex a couple of months
earlier: The
Nehalem Preview: Intel Does It Again

Intel naturally has more than a few words about Core i7. They begin here, Next-Generation
Intel Microarchitecture
, with a summary of key features:

* Dynamic scalability, managed cores, threads, cache, interfaces,
and power for energy-efficient performance on demand.
* Design and performance scalability for server, workstation, PC, and
mobile demands with support for 2-8+ cores and up to 16+ threads with simultaneous
multi-threading (SMT), and scalable cache sizes, system interconnects, and
integrated memory controllers.
* Simultaneous multi-threading brings high-performance applications
into mainstream computing with 1-16+ threads optimized for a new generation
multi-core processor architecture.
* Scalable shared memory of Intel QuickPath technology features memory
distributed to each processor with integrated memory controllers and high-speed
point-to-point interconnects to unleash the performance of next-generation
Intel® multi-core processors.
* Multi-level shared cache improves performance and efficiency by reducing
latency to frequently used data.

AMD fans have noted that Intel has finally done what should have been done
years ago: It has an integrated memory controller, a feature employed by AMD
for several years with the very first Athlon 64s. Note that the first Core i7s
will ship with a triple-channel DDR3 memory controller. This means that DDR3
DIMMs must be installed in sets of three to take advantage of the full memory
bandwidth. Later versions will ship with two active controllers, but the triple-channel
controller will be retained for high end and server CPUs.

This is only one of many features in Core i7 that require significant changes
from existing Intel platforms. Heatsink makers will be delighted about the change
to a new 1366 pin socket and larger CPU housing that require a bigger heatsink.
Existing heatsinks will probably not be adaptable to the new socket, making
possible a whole new round of heatsink sales to enthusiasts. The push-pin mounting
mechanism from LGA-775 is apparently being used with LGA1366, which is disappointing
for most hardware enthusiasts.

Some slides from a presentation by Stephen Thomas of the Intel Platform Applications
Engineering Division provide more details:

* * *

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