Great analysis of Intel’s coming troubles - and what they’re trying to do to head them off.
When I first started writing about x86 CPUs Intel was on the verge of entering the enterprise space with its processors. At the time, Xeon was a new brand, unproven in the market. But it highlighted a key change in Intel’s strategy for dominance: leverage consumer microprocessor sales to help support your fabs while making huge margins on lower volume, enterprise parts. In other words, get your volume from the mainstream but make your money in the enterprise. Intel managed to double dip and make money on both ends, it just made substantially more in servers.
Today Intel’s magic formula is being threatened. Within 8 years many expect all mainstream computing to move to smartphones, or whatever other ultra portable form factor computing device we’re carrying around at that point. To put it in perspective, you’ll be able to get something faster than an Ivy Bridge Ultrabook or MacBook Air, in something the size of your smartphone, in fewer than 8 years. The problem from Intel’s perspective is that it has no foothold in the smartphone market. Although Medfield is finally shipping, the vast majority of smartphones sold feature ARM based SoCs. If all mainstream client computing moves to smartphones, and Intel doesn’t take a dominant portion of the smartphone market, it will be left in the difficult position of having to support fabs that no longer run at the same capacity levels they once did. Without the volume it would become difficult to continue to support the fab business. And without the mainstream volume driving the fabs it would be difficult to continue to support the enterprise business. Intel wouldn’t go away, but Wall Street wouldn’t be happy. There’s a good reason investors have been reaching out to any and everyone to try and get a handle on what is going to happen in the Intel v ARM race.
To make matters worse, there’s trouble in paradise. When Apple dropped PowerPC for Intel’s architectures back in 2005 I thought the move made tremendous sense. Intel needed a partner that was willing to push the envelope rather than remain content with the status quo. The results of that partnership have been tremendous for both parties … What once was the perfect relationship, is now on rocky ground.
The A6 SoC in Apple’s iPhone 5 features the company’s first internally designed CPU core. When one of your best customers is dabbling in building CPUs of its own, there’s reason to worry. In fact, Apple already makes the bulk of its revenues from ARM based devices. In many ways Apple has been a leading indicator for where the rest of the PC industry is going (shipping SSDs by default, moving to ultra portables as mainstream computers, etc…). There’s even more reason to worry if the post-Steve Apple/Intel relationship has fallen on tough times. While I don’t share Charlie’s view of Apple dropping Intel as being a done deal, I know there’s truth behind his words. Intel’s Ultrabook push, the close partnership with Acer and working closely with other, non-Apple OEMs is all very deliberate. Intel is always afraid of customers getting too powerful and with Apple, the words too powerful don’t even begin to describe it.
What does all of this have to do with Haswell? As I mentioned earlier, Intel has an ARM problem and Apple plays a major role in that ARM problem. Atom was originally developed not to deal with ARM but to usher in a new type of ultra mobile device. That obviously didn’t happen. UMPCs failed, netbooks were a temporary distraction (albeit profitable for Intel) and a new generation of smartphones and tablets became the new face of mobile computing. While Atom will continue to play in the ultra mobile space, Haswell marks the beginning of something new. Rather than send its second string player into battle, Intel is starting to prep its star for ultra mobile work.
Haswell is so much more than just another new microprocessor architecture from Intel. For years Intel has enjoyed a wonderful position in the market. With its long term viability threatened, Haswell is the first step of a long term solution to the ARM problem. While Atom was the first “fast-enough” x86 micro-architecture from Intel, Haswell takes a different approach to the problem. Rather than working from the bottom up, Haswell is Intel’s attempt to take its best micro-architecture and drive power as low as possible.
In the middle of 2011 Intel announced its Ultrabook initiative, and at the same time mentioned that Haswell would shift Intel’s notebook design target from 35 - 45W down to 10 - 20W.
At the time I didn’t think too much about the new design target, but everything makes a lot more sense now. This isn’t a “simple” architectural shift, it’s a complete rethinking of how Intel approaches platform design. More importantly than Haswell’s 10 - 20W design point, is the new expanded SoC design target. I’ll get to the second part shortly.
There will be four client focused categories of Haswell, and I can only talk about three of them now. There are the standard voltage desktop parts, the mobile parts and the ultra-mobile parts: Haswell, Haswell M and Haswell U. There’s a fourth category of Haswell that may happen but a lot is still up in the air on that line.
Of the three that Intel is talking about now, the first two (Haswell/Haswell M) don’t do anything revolutionary on the platform power side. Intel is promising around a 20% reduction in platform power compared to Sandy Bridge, but not the order of magnitude improvement it promised at IDF. These platforms are still two-chip solutions with the SoC and a secondary IO chip similar to what we have today with Ivy Bridge + PCH.
It’s the Haswell U/ULT parts that brings about the dramatic change. These will be a single chip solution, with part of the voltage regulation typically found on motherboards moved onto the chip’s package instead. There will still be some VR components on the motherboard as far as I can tell, it’s the specifics that are lacking at this point (which seems to be much of the theme of this year’s IDF).
Seven years ago Intel first demonstrated working silicon with an on-chip North Bridge (now commonplace) and on-package CMOS voltage regulation.
The benefits were two-fold: 1) Intel could manage fine grained voltage regulation with very fast transition times and 2) a tangible reduction in board component count.
The second benefit is very easy to understand from a mobile perspective. Fewer components on a motherboard means smaller form factors and/or more room for other things (e.g. larger battery volume via a reduction in PCB size).
The first benefit made a lot of sense at the time when Intel introduced it, but it makes even more sense when you consider the most dramatic change to Haswell: support for S0ix active idle.
Your smartphone and tablet both fetch emails, grab Twitter updates, receive messages and calls while in their sleep state. The prevalence of always-on wireless connectivity in these devices makes all of this easy, but the PC/smartphone/tablet convergence guarantees that if the PC doesn’t adopt similar functionality it won’t survive in the new world.
The solution is connected standby or active idle, a feature supported both by Haswell and Clovertrail as well as all of the currently shipping ARM based smartphones and tablets. Today, transitioning into S3 sleep is initiated by closing the lid on your notebook or telling the OS to go to sleep. In Haswell (and Clovertrail), Intel introduced a new S0ix active idle state (there are multiple active idle states, e.g. S0i1, S0i3). These states promise to deliver the same power consumption as S3 sleep, but with a quick enough wake up time to get back into full S0 should you need to do something with your device.
With Haswell U/ULT parts, Intel will actually go in and specify recommended components for the rest of the platform. I’m talking about everything from voltage regulators to random microcontrollers on the motherboard. Even more than actual component “suggestions”, Intel will also list recommended firmwares for these components. Intel gave one example where an embedded controller on a motherboard was using 30 - 50mW of power. Through some simple firmware changes Intel was able to drop this particular controller’s power consumption down to 5mW. It’s not rocket science, but this is Intel’s way of doing some of the work that its OEM partners should have been doing for the past decade. Apple has done some of this on its own (which is why OS X based notebooks still enjoy tangibly longer idle battery life than their Windows counterparts), but Intel will be offering this to many of its key OEM partners and in a significant way.
Intel’s focus on everything else in the system extends beyond power consumption - it also needs to understand the latency tolerance of everything else in the system. The shift to active idle states is a new way of thinking. In the early days of client computing there was a real focus on allowing all off-CPU controllers to work autonomously. The result of years of evolution along those lines resulted in platforms where any and everything could transact data whenever it wanted to.
By knowing how latency tolerant all of the controllers and components in the system are, hardware and OS platform power management can begin to align traffic better. Rather than everyone transacting data whenever it’s ready, all of the components in the system can begin to coalesce their transfers so that the system wakes up for a short period of time to do work then quickly return to sleep. The result is a system that’s more frequently asleep with bursts of lots of activity rather than frequently kept awake by small transactions.