Ignoring the daily tech trees that fall in the woods, let’s explore the computer technology forest looking out a couple of years.
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Part 1: Processors
Architectures and Processes
Intel’s Haswell and Broadwell
We’ll see a new X86 architecture in the first half of 2013, code-name Haswell. The Haswell chips will use the 22 nm fabrication process introduced in third-generation Intel Core chips (aka Ivy Bridge). Haswell is important for extending electrical efficiency, improving performance per clock tick, and as the vehicle for Intel’s first system on a chip (SoC), which combines a dual-core processor, graphics, and IO in one unit.
Haswell is an architecture, and the benefits of the architecture carry over to the various usage models discussed in the next section.
I rate energy efficiency as the headline story for Haswell. Lightweight laptops like Ultrabooks (an Intel design) and Apple’s MacBook Air will sip the battery at around 8 watts, half of today’s 17 watts. This will dramatically improve the battery life of laptops but also smartphones and tablets, two markets that Intel has literally built $5 billion fabs to supply.
The on-chip graphics capabilities have improved by an order of magnitude in the past couple of years and get better of the next two. Like the main processor, the GPU benefits from improved electrical efficiency. In essence, on-board graphics are now “good enough” for the 80-th percentile of users. By 2015, the market for add-on graphics cards will start well above $100, reducing market size so much that the drivers switch; consumer GPUs lead high-performance computing (HPC) today. That’s swapping so that HPC is the demand that supplies off-shoot high-end consumer GPUs.
In delivering a variety of SoC processors in 2013, Intel learns valuable technology lessons for the smartphone, tablet, and mobile PC markets that will carry forward into the future. Adjacent markets, notably automotive and television, also require highly integrated SoCs.
Broadwell is the code-name for the 2014 process shrink of the Haswell architecture from 22nm to 14nm. I’d expect better electrical efficiency, graphics, and more mature SoCs. This is the technology sword Intel carries into the full fledged assault on the smartphone and tablet markets (more below).
AMD enters 2013 with plans for “Vishera” for the high-end desktop, “Richland”, an SoC for low-end and mainstream users, and “Kabini”, a low-power SoC for tablets.
The 2013 server plans are to deliver its third-generation of the current Opteron architecture, code name Steamroller. The company also plans to move from a 32nm SOI process to a 28nm bulk silicon process.
In 2014, AMD will be building Opteron processors based on a 64-bit ARM architecture, and may well be first to market. These chips will incorporate the IO fabric acquired with microserver-builder Seamicro. In addition, AMD is expected to place small ARM cores on its X86 processors in order to deliver a counter to Intel’s Trusted Execution Technology. AMD leads the pack in processor chimerism.
Intel’s better performing high-end chips have kept AMD largely outside looking in for the past two years. Worse, low-end markets such as netbooks have been eroded by the upward charge of ARM-based tablets and web laptops (i.e., Chromebook, Kindle, Nook).
ARM Holdings licenses processor and SoC designs that licensees can modify to meet particular uses. The company’s 32-bit chips started out as embedded industrial and consumer designs. However, the past five years has seen fast rising tides as ARM chip designs were chosen for Apple’s iPhone and iPad, Google’s Android phones and tablets, and a plethora of other consumer gadgets. Recent design wins includes Microsoft’s Surface RT. At this point, quad-core (plus one, with nVidia) 32-bit processors are commonplace. Where to go next?
The next step is a 64-bit design expected in 2014. This design will first be used by AMD, Calxeda, Marvell, and undisclosed other suppliers to deliver microservers. The idea behind microservers is to harness many (hundreds to start) of low-power/modest-performance processors costing tens of dollars each and running multiple instances of web application in parallel, such as Apache web servers. This approach aims to compete on price/performance, energy/performance, and density versus traditional big-iron servers (e.g., Intel Xeon).
In one sentence, the 2013-2014 computer industry dynamics will largely center on how well ARM users defend against Intel’s Atom SoCs in smartphones and tablets, and how well Intel defends its server market from ARM microserver encroachment. If the Microsoft Surface RT takes off, the ARM industry has a crack at the PC/laptop industry, but that’s not my prediction. Complicating the handicapping is fabrication process leadership, where Intel continues to excel over the next two years; smaller process nodes yield less expensive chips with voltage/performance advantages.
Stronger Ties Between Chip Use and Parts
The number of microprocessor models has skyrocketed off the charts the past few years, confusing everybody and costing chip makers a fortune in inventory management (e.g., write-downs). This really can’t keep up as every chip variation goes through an expensive set of usability and compatibility tests running up to millions of dollars per SKU (stock-keeping unit e.g., unique microprocessor model specs). That suggests we’ll see a much closer match between uses for specific microprocessor variations and the chips fabricated to meet the specific market and competitive needs of those uses. By 2015, I believe we’ll see a much more delineated set of chip uses and products:
Smartphones – the low-end of consumer processors. Phone features are reaching maturity: there are only so many pixels and videos one can fit on a 4″ (5″?) screen, and gaming performance is at the good-enough stage. Therefore, greater battery life and smarter use of the battery budget become front and center.
The reason for all the effort is a 400 million unit global smartphone market. For cost and size reasons, prowess in mating processors with radios and support functions into systems on a chip (SoCs) is paramount.
The horse to beat is ARM Holdings, whose architecture is used by the phone market leaders including Samsung, Apple, nVidia, and Qualcomm. The dark horse is Intel, which wants very much to grab, say, 5% of the smartphone market.
Reusing chips for multiple uses is becoming a clever way to glean profits in an otherwise commodity chip business. So I’ll raise a few eyebrows by predicting we’ll see smartphone chips used by the hundreds in microservers (see Part 2) inside the datacenter.
Tablets – 7″ to 10″ information consumption devices iconized by Apple’s iPad and iPad Mini. These devices need to do an excellent job on media, web browsing, and gaming at the levels of last year’s laptops. The processors and the entire SoCs need more capabilities than smartphones. Hence a usage category different from smartphones. Like smartphones, greater battery life and smarter use of the electrical budget are competitive differentiators.
Laptops, Mainstream Desktops, and All-in-One PCs – Mainstream PCs bifurcate differently over the next couple of years in different ways than the past. I’m taking my cue here from Intel’s widely leaked decision to make 2013-generation (i.e., Haswell) SoCs that solder permanently to the motherboard instead of being socketed. This is not a bad idea because almost no one upgrades a laptop processor, and only enthusiasts upgrade desktops during the typical 3-5 year useful PC life. Getting rid of sockets reduces costs, improves quality, and allows for thinner laptops.
The point is that there will be a new class of parts with the usual speed and thermal variations that are widely used to build quad-core laptops, mainstream consumer and enterprise desktops, and all-in-one PCs (which are basically laptops with big built-in monitors).
The processor energy-efficiency drive pays benefits in much lower laptop-class electrical consumption, allowing instant on and much longer battery life. Carrying extra batteries on airplanes becomes an archaic practice (not to mention a fire hazard). The battle is MacBook Air versus Ultrabooks. Low-voltage becomes its own usage sub-class.
Low End Desktops and Laptops – these are X86 PCs running Windows, not super-sized tablet chips. The market is low-cost PCs for developed markets and mainstream in emerging markets. Think $299 Pentium laptop sale at Wal-Mart. The processors for this market are soldered, dual-core, and SoC to reduce costs.
Servers, Workstations, and Enthusiasts – the high end of the computing food chain. These are socketed, high-performance devices used for business, scientific, and enthusiast applications where performance trumps other factors. That said, architecture improvements, energy efficiency, and process shrinks make each new generation of server-class processors more attractive. Intel is the market and technology leader in this computing usage class, and has little to fear from server-class competitors over the next two years.
There is already considerable overlap in server, workstation, and enthusiast processor capabilities. I see the low end Xeon 1200 moving to largely soldered models. The Xeon E5-2600 and Core i7 products gain more processor cores and better electrical efficiency over the Haswell generation.