Intel hasn't released its 32nm Westmere processors yet, but executives spent the first day of the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) talking about technology even farther down road. In his keynote, executive VP Sean Maloney gave a glimpse of a desktop running Sandy Bridge, the new microarchitecture that comes after Westmere, also at 32nm (they'll talk more about that today). Even further out, CEO Paul Otellini showed the world's first working 22nm chip--an SRAM test chip the size of a fingernail with 2.9 billion transistors.
The message from Intel's was clear: Moore's Law is alive and well. Why does this matter? Obviously there's a big economic incentive. Finer process technology enables chipmakers to manufacture smaller processors, which lowers cost, with more transistors, which lets chip designers improve performance and add new features.
But there's another reason too. As it expands into new markets beyond the PC--something Intel now refers to as the "continuum"--it is running up against a host of potential competitors, especially companies such as Qualcomm and Samsung that are designing more powerful mobile processors, not only for smartphones but also for smartbooks and netbooks. Meanwhile an old rival, AMD, has spun-off its manufacturing to a new company, GlobalFoundries, and found a partner with deep pockets. Earlier this year Intel vowed to spend $7 billion over the next two years on advanced manufacturing, and the heavy spending is clearly yielding results. These public demonstrations of future technology are a clear signal to both competitors and customers that Intel has no plans to let up.
Next up for Intel is Westmere, which will be the first 32nm processor, though with the second generation of the company's high-k and metal gate (HK+MG) technology. (Intel execs love to point out that they've shipped more than 200 million 45nm chips with HK+MG transistors while competitors such as TSMC and AMD are still working on the technology.) Aside from process technology, the major difference in Westmere is that it will include both the 32nm CPU and a 45nm graphics processing unit (GPU)--in the same package, not on the same physical piece of silicon (or "on-die"). Current desktops and notebooks use either integrated graphics in a separate chipset (the northbridge) or a discrete graphics processing unit (GPU). Intel has also posted a new Westmere video in which engineers talk a bit about the challenges of integrating the GPU in the package and the level of performance it should offer. Maloney focused on two other features, HyperThreading (two cores, four threads) and Turbo Mode, which he said will improve responsiveness even on simple tasks such as synchronizing content between a PC and an iPod.
Lately there's been some talk that Westmere may arrive early--mainly because Intel said it would be "shipping for revenue in the fourth quarter"--but the schedule hasn't changed. Intel will start selling the Clarksdale desktop and Arrandale mobile versions to its customers in the fourth quarter, and they will show up in desktops and laptops in the first quarter of 2010.
In Intel's "tick-tock" development cadence, Westmere is a tick (a shrink from 45nm to 32nm), which will be followed by a new Sandy Bridge microarchitecture, the tock, at the same process node. Intel executives will talk more about Sandy Bridge today, but what we do know is that it will include a new GPU on-die and it will use the AVX (Advanced Vector Extensions) instructions that Intel has developed to speed-up floating-point calculations in intensive applications such as multimedia, scientific research and financial modeling. Sandy Bridge is scheduled to ship in late 2010.
Intel also gave the first public demonstration of the "early silicon" for its mysterious Larrabee discrete GPU. In a demo during Maloney's keynote, research scientist Bill Mark showed how his team can put a popular 3D game, id Software's Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, into the company's ray tracing engine and run it in real-time using task parallelism. He emphasized the ease of programming Larrabee using C++ and said doing something similar on a standard GPU would be "quite painful." There's still no word on how or when Intel plans to bring Larrabee to market. While everyone has assumed that Larrabee will be sold as a discrete GPU, interestingly Maloney said at the conclusion of the demo that Intel "will be "incorporating this into a future CPU at some point." The Larrabee demo had the help of an upcoming 32nm high-end desktop CPU, Gulftown, which will have six cores and 12 threads. Not coincidentally, AMD revealed earlier this week that it would also release a six-core desktop processor, code-named Thuban, sometime in 2010.
If all goes according to plan, Intel will release processors based on its 22nm "tick" in late 2011. This node will use the third generation of Intel's HK+MG technology, and it will likely integrate not only the GPU--as in Sandy Bridge--but other new functions as well. As Intel pushes the limits of process scaling, it will need to go beyond HK+MG and come up with other innovations. Some of the possibilities specifically mentioned in yesterday's sessions include the use of compound semiconductors such as Gallium Arsenide, already widely used in communications; new lithography tools such as EUV (Extreme Ultra Violet), which has a shorter wavelength to print finer circuitry; and 3D chip stacking to increase density and combine different types of chips in a single package.
All of these pose major technical challenges, but given Intel's track record of late, Moore's Law is probably safe for several more generations.