Intel and rivals prepare for IDF chip battle

The Intel Developer Forum will see Intel fight a major PR battle with arch-mobile-device-rival ARM, as well as try to fend off incursions into its datacentre territory from AMD and ARM.

This year's Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco is shaping up to be a dramatic show, as Intel tries to fight off rivals mounting assaults on its home turf of the datacentre and at the same time take ground in mobile devices.

The centerpiece of the show, which kicks off on Monday, is Intel's fourth-generation Core chip, codenamed Haswell. Haswell, a 22nm enterprise and desktop chip, is the successor to Ivy Bridge.

Above all, it's a system-on-a-chip (SoC) with integrated graphics, a wealth of onboard connectivity options, and promises of low-power consumption. As such, Haswell is lined up to be Intel's key product in persuading consumers of the merits of its ultrabooks and enterprises of its future servers and desktops.

But it's set to be a Punch and Judy show, too, with the world's press looking on as chip competitors line up to whack each other over the head with their new products.

Intel IDF: Tech's equivalent of a Punch and Judy show.  Image credit: Shutterstock

To start with, AMD has said it will reveal on Monday what it is planning to do with the high-density server technology it acquired when it bought SeaMicro in February

This puts pressure on Intel to show that its chips are a good fit for microservers, which prioritise low power and high connectivity above performance. To do this, the chipmaker has lined up a few lecture sessions on microservers and how best to design them. 

If I had to make bets, I'd stake money on AMD unveiling a new SeaMicro system based around one of its high-end Opteron processors. This microserver will have very high density and will be designed for large clouds. To counter this, Intel will have to demonstrate that it can use the Ivy Bridge chips' integrated PCI 3.0 technology or Haswell's as-yet-undisclosed connectivity tech to create a convincing datacentre fabric.

And around the corner from IDF, ARM, the world's premier purveyor of chip designs for mobile devices, is briefing journalists at a nearby hotel on Monday. In smartphones, ARM's chips are everywhere and Intel's are nowhere, with few x86 handsets in the market (save the Orange San Diego ). 

On top of this, Intel rival and major customer Apple has a big announcement lined up for Wednesday; many expect this to be the arrival of the iPhone 5. Previous iPhones used chips based on ARM designs, and there's little reason to suspect Apple will deviate from this.

Intel's plan

All in all, Intel will have to make itself heard above the noise generated by these heavyweights. So what is it going to do?

Judging by the IDF agenda, the chip giant will be emphasising ultrabooks, mobile devices and the benefits of Haswell in the datacentre.

But there are problems with this approach. For one thing, its chips are in very few mobile devices. For another, though Intel has poured money into promoting ultrabooks, the coffee shop laptop of choice is still an Apple product. Finally, Haswell won't ship until next year at the earliest, and in the meantime, Intel has to contend with a depressed datacentre market and troubles with its key enterprise hardware partners, HP and Dell. 

The stakes are high at this year's IDF. Can Intel come up with the knock-out punch?