Hardware: Multicore rolls on

AMD, Intel, IBM, and Sun continue the innovation

For observers of the microprocessor sweepstakes, 2006 will be remembered as the year the empire struck back, the green CPU grew, multicore trickled down, Power shifted, a new public SPARC was lit, and an industry-altering merger put coprocessors, and AMD’s marketing, back in business.

The x86 news unquestionably dominated the year. Intel delivered Core microarchitecture for desktop and mobile computers, which carried Intel forward with a simpler, smaller, cooler CPU design that harkened back to Pentium III. Core scaled easily to multiple cores per socket, and it ushered in standardized socket, bus, and chipset specifications that will permit CPU upgrades without the need to alter system motherboards. Intel took its first-ever stab at fixing its infamous funneled bus design by equipping its architecture with two buses. The dramatic improvement allowed Intel to raise its bus clock to 1066MHz and to adopt a new serial memory interface dubbed Fully Buffered DIMM. Intel was first to the quad-core mark with its delivery of the Kentsfield platform, and Intel enjoyed the distinction of being first to market with hardware-assisted virtualization.

AMD still maintains a formidable technological lead over Intel with the on-chip HyperTransport I/O bus and DDR2 memory controllers, server scalability up to eight sockets, and dedicated Level 2, massive 64KB Level 1 data, and instruction caches per core. In sum, AMD’s advantage over Intel is near-constant parallelization, over which IT has gone nuts, kicking Opteron servers to the top of the food chain, where they will remain. To get the broader market excited about parallelization, AMD has coined a term, megatasking, to describe a working style enabled by AMD’s massively parallelized architecture, and it’s counting on Vista to enlighten desktop users; Windows XP treats an AMD64 system like any other x86-64 chip. AMD closed the year with a demonstration of its quad-core Opteron server CPUs, which will be its first 65-nanometer chips and which will maintain the power consumption and thermal design profile of AMD’s dual-core CPUs.

As x86 advanced, RISC grew no moss. IBM Power5+ competes neck and neck with Sun UltraSparc IV+ in big iron Unix servers, and Power continues to lead in RISC workstations. PowerPC has found a stable home in power.org, an alliance formed to develop standards for commercial and open source PowerPC CPU implementations. Freescale joined power.org late in 2006, reuniting it with IBM after the contentious split that nixed the best potential alternative to x86. But there’s still reason to hope: In 2006, PowerPC won the triple crown as the foundation for Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft gaming consoles, and PlayStation 3 already runs Linux.

With its massively scalable dual-core UltraSparc IV+ driving its top dog RISC big iron and AMD’s turbocharged Opteron below, Sun took first place in UNIX servers from IBM in 2006. Sun’s 32-threaded UltraSparc T1 is also open source and green beyond compare, but so far, less effectively evangelized commercially.

The year saw Intel backpedal to a far better CPU architecture, restoring its marketing swagger. AMD had trouble getting its parallelization advantages seen through Intel’s fog of war, but quad-core, 65 nanometer, Vista, and the ATI acquisition will set that right. IBM and Sun are simultaneously setting standards for high-performance and green computing in Power and UltraSparc, and their open designs put an x86 alternative within distant reach. 2006 stands as proof that in platforms and architectures, vendors see that markets won’t settle for status quo.