Is Moore's Law dead at 40 or is this just a mid-life crisis?

Summary:Last week, Michael Kanellos published this FAQ on the 40th anniversary of Moore's law, which is famously known as the phenomenon that computer processing power will double every 18 months.? Actually, Gordon Moore only said that transistor count would double every 24 months and it was David House (a former executive of Intel) who extrapolated that performance would double every 18 months as a result of the increase in transistors.?

Last week, Michael Kanellos published this FAQ on the 40th anniversary of Moore's law, which is famously known as the phenomenon that computer processing power will double every 18 months.? Actually, Gordon Moore only said that transistor count would double every 24 months and it was David House (a former executive of Intel) who extrapolated that performance would double every 18 months as a result of the increase in transistors.? Ironically, it is House's unofficial reinterpretation of Moore's law that has become the popular definition of Moore's law.

Over two years ago, Tomshardware released this excellent article showing the historical progress of Intel and AMD CPUs from 100 MHz to 3000 MHz from year 1994 to 2003.? The results were astonishingly true to the 18-month performance doubling cycle, which reminded me when name-brand 33 MHz 486 computers were routinely sold for nearly $10,000 back in the early 1990s.? Because of this, I had been conditioned to the point that if someone had told me two years ago that we would still be stuck with 3 GHz class CPUs today, I would have told them that they were crazy.? It's a good thing I never made a wager on that theory since what has happened since February 2003 seems to signal?that Moore's law is dead at the age of 40, or at least going through a serious mid-life crisis.

Today, the Intel CPU is barely hitting 3.8 GHz,forcing the Intel marketing machine to give up its long rigid stance that the megahertz is king.? The constraints on current CPU fabrication technology means that processor manufacturers really can't squeeze anymore GHz out of a CPU without a ridiculous amount of power consumption, heat output, and exotic cooling techniques.? This has forced the processor manufacturers to abandon vertical scaling and embrace horizontal scaling by adding more processing cores in parallel.? Fortunately, the last two years hasn't been all doom and gloom, since there was progress made in other areas of processors that were not necessarily all about the thirst for more speed.

  • Low power processors - Transmeta originally started the concept of MIPS per watt, which resulted in a processor that could do as much computational work as possible with the minimal amount of electricity.? Because of the success of Transmeta, Intel responded by designing a?low-power processor called the "Pentium M" that is currently marketed as the processor component of "Centrino" for notebook computers. Note that the Transmeta and Pentium M haven't been?limited to notebooks; they were also incorporated in server technology for high-density blade servers. The Intel CPUs were clocked much lower than their desktop cousins (around 1.8 GHz) and used much less power, but could match the 3 GHz desktop CPUs in performance.
  • Hyperthreading - A technology from Intel that allows a single CPU to behave as two CPUs. Although you're really not getting two true CPUs, it?does deliver a nice little performance boost while running multiple processing threads. IBM later released a similar technology called multi-threading.
  • NX - This is a security feature generically called "No Execute" and probably has half a dozen other marketing names depending on which company it's coming from. AMD beat Intel to the punch a year ago with their high-end Sempron processors, Opteron, and Athlon 64 processors, and Intel gets to play catch-up in this arena.
  • 64 bit extensions - AMD added 64 bit extensions to their 32-bit x86 processor line over a year ago so that there may be a smooth transition from 32- to 64-bit. Since the popularity of these processors have grown, Intel was pressured to release their own compatible version of 64-bit extensions for their high-end Xeon MP (Pentium 4 cores with a lot more cache) processors. Initially, Intel did not want to release the 32/64-bit hybrid technology because of the negative affect it would have on the Intel Itanium processor, which is a true 64-bit processor with 32-bit emulation.? The market has since proven that the hybrid technology is what?customers ?want.? Just last week, Microsoft released a version of Windows that will support these new 32/64-bit hybrids.
  • Multi-core processors - AMD recently released their own multi-core 64-bit extensions processor and Intel will soon be releasing their own multi-core processor.? The big question is: What does this do for my performance numbers?? The answer is, most likely, not much for most existing applications since it's very difficult to design computer applications that can achieve "perfect scaling" where doubling the processors will double the performance.? Contrast this with the past when double the MHz almost always doubled the performance, regardless of multi-processor optimizations.? The other big question is: What will multi-core processors cost?? Will they charge double for a dual-core processor?? My guess is that they will most likely charge a premium.? Unfortunately, customers have?grown accustomed?to getting double the performance for either the same or less money every 18 months.? We most certainly will not pay double the money for something that won't even deliver double the performance.? The biggest problem of all for multi-core processors is the threat of paying double for software licensing.? No one will spend $2K on a new CPU if it will mean that they need to spend an extra $100K on software licensing.? Microsoft is the first major database vendor to not punish you for buying multi-core processors, but IBM and Oracle are sticking to their per-core licensing models.

So the?question remains, is Moore's law dead?? As far as transistor count progress is concerned, Moore's law is alive and well.? Unfortunately, it just doesn't meet the popular perception that processing power is supposed to double every 18 months, and the public is feeling a bit short-changed by recent progress.? Ultimately, for the technology industry, it just means that?customers ?will simply hold on a little tighter to their wallets when it comes to buying a new computer because the one from two years ago isn't that much slower.? No amount of?re-education that GHz don't matter will?loosen our wallets?until the newer products start delivering a lot more performance and innovation?for even less money.

Topics: Processors

About

George Ou, a former ZDNet blogger, is an IT consultant specializing in Servers, Microsoft, Cisco, Switches, Routers, Firewalls, IDS, VPN, Wireless LAN, Security, and IT infrastructure and architecture.

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