While today AMD and Intel compete over which company's processors will have the most cores, this battle will not last indefinitely, according to Donald Newell, AMD's chief technology officer for servers. In its place will be a heated competition over which chips will have the most useful on-die specialized computing capabilities.
"There will come an end to the core-count wars. I won't put an exact date on it, but I don't myself expect to see 128 cores on a full-sized server die by the end of this decade," said Newell, who joined AMD last summer after spending 16 years at Intel.
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This shift in direction, should it come, may also bring a sigh of relief to developers worldwide who have been grappling with how to write their programs in parallel so they can run on multiple cores.
Up until the early part of the last decade, improvement in CPUs was measured largely by clock speed, with each new generation of processors sporting faster clock speeds than the previous models.
"We thought we were going to build a 10GHz chip," Newell said of his time at Intel. "It was only when we discovered that they would get so hot it would melt through the Earth, that we decided not to do that," he joked.
While Moore's Law continues unabated, thanks to development of ever-finer lithography techniques that allow manufacturers to pack even more transistors onto a die, the race turned to the number of cores each chip could house. Dual-core server and desktop chips were soon followed by quad-core editions. Now both AMD and Intel are competing on the six-core and eight-core fronts.
Soon that race will draw to a close, Newell said. "Just as we came to the end of the frequency wars, we'll come to the end of the core-count wars," he said.
The next competitive front, Newell predicted, will come in heterogenous computing. Instead of being largely composed of a single general-purpose processing core, processors will come to resemble systems-on-a-chip, in which sections of each chip will be dedicated to specific tasks, such as encryption, video rendering or networking.