news / tech talk


by Lee LeClair
As seen in Inside Tucson Business

As you may know, there is an ongoing battle within the microprocessor world between the two major manufacturers: Intel and AMD. Intel is by far the larger and more dominant market force but in the last two years Intel lost a considerable amount of its prestige, respect, and market. That is because Intel backed the wrong technology, its own Itanium system, based on a “from scratch” non-backwards compatible 64 bit structure. AMD chose an evolutionary path to the 64 bit architecture that seamlessly allowed both existing 32 bit and new 64 bit code. Intel convinced major hardware vendors (HP, Dell, etc.) and software giants (Microsoft) to back their horse. In the end, consumers of both business and home varieties chose the AMD path and vendors started ditching Intel. Only after it was painfully clear that the market had spoken did Intel tuck tail and convert their chips to a model similar to AMD. However, their designs lagged behind AMD’s and so Intel was left behind in benchmarks and media reviews. AMD became the underdog who could, the gamer’s favorite, and eventually popular in the lucrative business server space.

AMD had issues with production, however, a traditional weak point for the company in which they could not produce the quantities the market demanded. Though AMD had gained a big chunk of market, they still struggled with manufacturing processes like using smaller chip designs (90nm versus 65nm). Intel learned a hard lesson and is still in the process of streamlining it’s internal businesses (a.k.a. cutting operations and employees) but it is also a skilled manufacturer and redesigned its next generation chips to launch the core duo and core 2 duo chipsets. These dual core designs leap-frogged AMD’s dual-cores with smaller 65nm scales, much more efficient power and heat profiles, and speed. Intel is back in front with these chips as AMD struggles to shrink their processes to 65nm and increase production. Still, AMD is finally a contender and the big vendors now use both chips where previously Intel had a stranglehold.

AMD recently announced their own quad-core design called Barcelona which includes some very interesting technical details in how the cores communicate and cooperate. They accuse Intel of simply sticking two dual-cores together while their own design is a true 4 core design with greater efficiencies for threaded applications. Until tests and benchmarks are done, these are all claims but the explanations are plausible and AMD has produced in the past. Barcelona is supposed to ship in Q2 of this year. Will quad-cores produce big benefits? For certain types of uses, they will. Large databases, threaded applications, and systems running virtual machines (VMs) can definitely benefit from these technologies but as the number of cores increase to 8, 16, and beyond, the returns will diminish. This is because they begin to run into issues with applications programming. To really take advantage of massive parallelism, the way that software is written will likely need to change and that will not be easy or quick.

So what does this mean to businesses, IT managers, and general consumers? It means that competition is good for the consumer. Previously, Intel had a near monopoly and was allegedly strong-arming even big manufacturers like HP and Dell. The last two years have broken at least part of that hold and now consumers benefit as each rival devises innovative ways to capture the market. I liked AMD better when it was producing the most powerful chips; right now, I like Intel’s core 2 duos. If AMD comes out with a better and/or more cost effective processor, I’ll switch back. I’m agnostic that way. After all, it’s business and they are just chips.

Lee Le Clair is the CTO at Ephibian. His Tech Talk column appears the third week of each month in Inside Tucson Business