Hot-Rod Pentium 4, Multicore CPU Announcements Start IDF with a Bang

Next week AMD will blitz the high-performance PC market with the launch of its Athlon 64 processor, but this week Intel Corp. is enjoying the spotlight — and telling PC manufacturers and users what comes after the Hyper-Threading Technology of today’s desktop Pentium 4 and workstation/server Xeon CPUs.

The silicon giant kicked off the fall edition of its Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in San Jose, Calif., with a pair of keynote presentations that ranged from promises of four processor cores in one chip to a new Pentium 4 Extreme Edition for enthusiast PCs (read: preemptive strike against the Athlon 64).

New Interfaces and DDR2 Servers

IDF is always a showplace for new technologies and Intel-endorsed wanna-be standards. Some, after kicking around for a couple of years, are close to reality: With help from ATI Technologies, Intel vice president and Desktop Platforms Group co-general manager Louis Burns presented the first demonstration of a graphics controller based on the new PCI Express interconnect specification. The latter is expected to replace today’s AGP bus beginning next year; the PCI-SIG industry association has announced its first PCI Express product-testing compliance workshop for December 15-17 in Milpitas, Calif.

Both PCI Express and USB 2.0 interfaces are built into ExpressCard (formerly called NewCard), a faster serial successor to today’s parallel PC Card or PCMCIA expansion standard that should appear in both laptops and desktops in the second half of 2004. ExpressCard add-ins will come in two sizes — each 3 inches long, but 1.33 and 2.13 inches wide for most products and those with CompactFlash or 1.8-inch hard disk storage, respectively.

Other standards are still in the wishful-thinking stage, such as Balanced Technology Extended (BTX), which Intel talked up last year under the name “Big Water” — a more compact successor to the venerable ATX motherboard form factor, supporting both traditional chassis and suggesting an (Intel-directed) standard for the quieter, small-form-factor PCs already emerging from vendors like Shuttle and VIA with their respective XPC and Mini-ITX designs.

But while third-party vendors don’t always line up in lockstep, most are eager to back Intel’s plans. For example, a Who’s Who of memory manufacturers — Hynix Semiconductor, Micron Technology, Infineon Technologies, Elpida Memory, and Samsung Electronics — announced today that they’re shipping or sampling 400MHz and 533MHz DDR2 memory, as used by Intel’s next-generation, PCI Express “Lindenhurst” server chipset.

Samsung’s press release boasts that it’s already looking forward to DDR2-667, since Lindenhurst is expected to support the 90-nanometer-process, 667MHz-bus “Nocona” successor to today’s 0.13-micron (130nm), 533MHz-bus, 1- and 2-way Xeon processors.

Nocona is the Xeon — Intel’s 32-bit server and workstation platform — version of the 90nm “Prescott” successor to today’s desktop Pentium 4, expected late this year but noticeably not given a specific launch date in today’s speeches. Another DDR2-based chipset, dubbed “Twin Castle,” is anticipated for a 4-way Nocona variant (i.e., 90nm replacement for today’s Xeon MP) called “Potomac.”

Smaller Transistors — and Lots More of Them

In today’s first IDF keynote, Intel president and chief operating officer Paul Otellini emphasized that the chipmaker is on track to move beyond 90-nanometer to even smaller process fabrication, showing the first 300mm silicon wafer built on the 65-nanometer manufacturing process that Intel says will start commercial production in 2005. By 2007, Otellini added, Intel will be at 45-nanometer fabrication, and by 2011, building 22-nanometer circuitry with transistors smaller than one molecule of DNA.

Meanwhile, in 2005 or 2006, a Xeon CPU codenamed “Tulsa” will move beyond today’s Hyper-Threading or mock-multiprocessing technology — which boosts performance by tricking compatible, multithreaded software into “seeing” one CPU as two — by actually incorporating two processor cores in a single chip, as pioneered by IBM’s Power4. Factor in Hyper-Threading, and software running on a Tulsa server will think it’s running on a 4-way multiprocessor machine.

Intel has already scheduled a dual-core, billion-transistor member of its Itanium 64-bit server and workstation CPU family — codenamed “Montecito” — for 2005. Otellini added that the Itanium after that, “Tanglewood,” would be a multicore chip with at least seven times the processing power of today’s Itanium 2, suggesting it’ll be a four-core CPU.

Hardware Trumps Software

Reaching deeper into Intel’s bag of tricks, Otellini touted the “LaGrande” security technology that will be built into the company’s CPUs in two to three years. Combined with optimized software, LaGrande promises to stop some of today’s spyware and hacker tricks such as keystroke logging, display frame-buffer peeking, and system memory scanning.

Still another future technology, for which Otellini didn’t specify a time frame, is named “Vanderpool” — hardware virtualization support for the IA-32 architecture, bringing the functionality of IT managers’ software utilities such as VMWare into the CPU or enabling one chip to juggle multiple, independent software environments. This might increase convenience and reduce system crashes by, for example, installing new drivers or other operating-system upgrades and rebooting one “virtual” computer while another continues running the user’s applications.

Finally, desktop planner Burns had more than PCI Express graphics and BTX motherboards to show: He previewed an “instant” on/off technology that could trim PC startup or recover-from-power-failure time to just a few seconds in the next few years, and plans to simplify home network assembly by building a wireless access point and router functionality right into the desktop by mid-2004. He showed a set-top box design, to be offered by Wyse Technology for delivering broadband video on demand.

And, in a transparent maneuver against next week’s Athlon 64 launch, he unveiled the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, a new desktop processor that should appear by November in systems for high-end gamers and power users. The Extreme Edition has the same 3.2GHz clock speed, 800MHz front-side bus, Hyper-Threading technology, and 512K on-chip Level 2 cache as the former flagship P4, but adds a performance-boosting extra — 2MB of Level 3 cache.

Technically, the P4EE is a Xeon MP with an 800MHz instead of 400MHz bus and a bump in core speed — still a 32-bit CPU, of course, unlike its 64-bit AMD rival, but poised to challenge the underdog’s gambit … at least until Microsoft gets around to shipping its AMD64 version of Windows XP, or until Intel gets around to shipping Prescott.

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