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Benchmarking: Is the Pentium 4 unassailable?

Part II: Playing Catch-Up, Staying Ahead
Wed May 28 2003, 09:51
In Part I of this article we discussed the changing nature of benchmarking between AMD and Intel and why the P4's competitive advantage continued to grow. In Part II we'll examine other rules of the game that allow AMD to remain competitive - to a point

alt='tweedle' GIVEN OUR CONCLUSIONS in Part I, Intel might seem to ultimately be in an unassailable position. Because the Pentium 4 is still the de facto standard for which programs are written and optimized (and because Intel has shown great willingness to lean on programmers to ensure their products are preferred), one might expect to see the AthlonXP's comparative performance continue to erode until AMD is pushed back into the budget market. Although Intel would have no chance of pushing AMD out of the budget sector, (the AthlonXP demolishes the Celeron too thoroughly for that), AMD's shaky financial structure couldn't withstand the damage that being forced into strictly budget systems would inflict. Sunnyvale would likely be purchased and their CPU line might even survive, but AMD as an independent company would cease to exist.

There are, however, mitigating factors which make this an unlikely outcome. The largest single reason why Pentium 4 performance has improved over the last two years (other than potential cheating) is the steady increase of SSE2 optimized programs on the open market (and hence included in benchmark programs). From the beginning it was obvious that SSE2 was the Pentium 4's key to high FPU performance, but a lack of optimized software left the CPU gasping in FPU-intensive code. With the continuing rise of SSE2 software we see the P4 gaining ground and in some cases even surpassing the AthlonXP.

The fact remains, however, that SSE2 is only able to deliver a performance increase to the P4 in situations where its SIMD abilities can be fully utilized. There is a significant number of programming areas where SSE2 cannot boost performance very much, and it's in these types of applications, including many games, where the AthlonXP will continue to hold ground. While the two CPUs are differently designed, they still have far more in common then, say, the PowerPC G4e and the P4, and AMD CPUs have often gained performance when Intel introduced new P4 optimizations - though not when those optimizations were SSE2-only.

Another temporary factor that prevents newer benchmarks from sweeping away AMD's performance lead is the software industry's current situation. Although Intel is on record as stating it feels only the newest versions of benchmarks should be used, many reviewers strike a balance between the latest tests and the products people actually own/use. Adobe might love for everyone to be running Photoshop 7, but if you're a business with a staff extensively trained on Photoshop 5, have a very limited IT budget thanks to the ongoing recession, and don't absolutely require version 7 you probably aren't going to use it.

Upgrading hardware tends to be cheaper than upgrading software once the cost of employee retraining is factored, and its more likely in a recession that businesses will upgrade hardware to boost performance in software they already own then to upgrade software on existing and slowing hardware. Slower software adoption means that benchmarks become obsolete more slowly, regardless of how many years have passed since they were released, and hence are retained for a longer period of time. Because many of the tests AMD prefers most are older tests, Sunnyvale is helped by the current situation.

These are the two largest technological or economic reasons why AMD isn't in as much trouble, but there are other factors still to be considered. One significant but hard to measure factor is that many buyers prefer having a choice when it comes to buying a product to not having one. Only the most die-hard Intel fans (read Paul R. Engel) would argue that AMD has brought nothing to the market, and many enthusiasts who are Intel-only buyers nevertheless acknowledge that AMD's resurgence in the past five years has lowered CPU prices while accelerating the rate of new product introduction as the two companies struggle to surpass each other. As long as AMD can offer good performance there will always be a class of buyers who'll be attracted to the company either because of price, price/performance ratio, or a simple desire to support the underdog.

In certain respects it's even in Intel's best interests to ensure that AMD stays alive. In the mid-1990s the FTC initiated an investigation of Intel over alleged monopolistic behavior, only to drop the investigation when it became clear that AMD was offering serious competition and a valid alternative option to Intel's technology. Even if Intel felt it had a good chance of being cleared in such an investigation or winning a court case if the FTC brought suit, the last thing Santa Clara wants to deal with is a long, drawn-out, and extremely expensive trial ala Microsoft and the DOJ.

Of course, the entire situation is a paradox. Intel wants AMD to continue to exist in order to save itself a tremendous amount of trouble, but simultaneously wants to control the entire CPU market, including that irritating chunk AMD continues to hang on to. The situation actually parallels Intel's relationship with its 3rd party chipset manufacturers. It wants them to exist because it makes money from their licence fees, just as they make money from AMD's licensing, but at the same time covets the business those third party chipsets generate. It's a classic case of wanting to eat your cake and have it too.

Of course, if SSE2 is the linchpin on which the Pentium 4's performance hangs, one might wonder why Intel licensed the technology to AMD for inclusion in Athlon 64, or, for that matter, why it licenses the right to make x86 processors at all. The reason why Santa Clara engages in this type of activity when refusing such licenses would doubtlessly be the fastest way to kill the competition has to do with the requirements of US monopoly law.

Simply put, it's illegal for a company to use its market position to deny another potential competitor the ability to enter the market for the purpose of maintaining a monopoly. Thus, the Baby Bells, which own much of the phone wire across America, are required to lease it to their competition, and Intel, which owns the right to the x86 processor, is required to license it to those who would manufacture x86-compatible processors. This fact leaves Intel in a bit of a catch-22. Santa Clara is free to invent new instruction sets to give its processors a competitive advantage (hence, SSE2), yet once such standards are so prevalent that they are becoming a key factor in competitive performance, Intel will face growing pressure to license the design, and could conceivably even be sued for monopolistic behavior should it refuse to do so.

The more successful Intel's unique performance-enhancing technology is, the more likely it is that they'll be required to share it.

Seen in this light, Intel's willingness to license SSE2, and the company's plans to jump to SSE3 with the launch of Nocona, make a great deal more sense. Just as we saw the Athlon's performance jump in key benchmarks once that CPU acquired SSE support, Athlon 64 could benefit enormously from SSE2. We could, in fact, be left watching the same scenario repeat itself, with Athlon 64 dramatically out-performing Nocona in SSE2 optimized benchmarks, only to watch SSE3 slowly dominate the market—until Intel chooses to license it rather than avoid the potential for legal action, at which case we'll undoubtedly see SSE4 emerge, and so on and so forth.

One of Intel's favourite claims is that AMD is nothing more than a copycat and a thief of Intel technology. This argument held weight when the K6 and K6-2 were billed as a poor man's Pentium/Pentium II, but when the Athlon arrived, that argument's power more or less evaporated as the K7 proved itself capable of beating the P3 and initial versions of the P4 at their own game.

Having lost the edge in CPU design Intel has since turned to software optimization to maintain its lead, and unfortunately it looks as though it'll be very difficult for AMD to crack their hold. The two CPU's are ultimately on different performance curves, with the very latest and newest tests - the forward-looking ones, so to speak--always favoring Intel more. Some would argue this is due to optimization and some would say its due to strong-arming, but the trend is undeniable no matter its source. AMD, even when its performance jumps dramatically, always jumps most impressively in the benchmarks of "today", while Intel holds the benchmarks of "tomorrow." While it's the benchmarks of today that are arguably more important, being able to drive the market towards the strengths of their processor allows Intel to maintain an illusion of being a market leader while AMD merely follows in its shadow. This, of course, is the whole idea.

Given the above, it's very difficult for AMD to position itself to steal a march on Intel and lead the market in technology adoption, but it's not impossible. In Part III we'll be examining AMD's x86-64 initiative, and why it just might have a chance. Stay tuned. µ


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