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Intel plans to show it's still the x86 CPU king

IDF 2011 From smartphones to supercomputers
Fri Sep 09 2011, 16:24

YET ANOTHER cool San Francisco September comes, and with it another annual Intel Developer Forum. This is a special year for The INQUIRER at IDF as two of us hacks will be covering it. Let's have a quick look what to expect on the processor front, where Intel still considers itself the king.

Armies of ARM chips are attacking the mobile battlefield, firmly dominating smartphones and quite strong on the tablet front too. On the other side, the fastest single chip commercial general purpose CPU in the world right now is still IBM Power 7. And AMD has started an onslaught in the mainstream mobile and desktop markets with its nascent Fusion APUs.

Sounds tough? Not really - in all other areas, Intel leads firmly in both performance and features right now, not to mention its market share dominance that doesn't seem to be waning. Its desktop and mobile Sandy Bridge chips are not only the fastest x86 CPU cores in their markets, but also spread across the widest price ranges. And half a year from now, 22nm Ivy Bridge chips will continue that dominance. The current Westmere 6-core CPUs for high end desktop and server platforms have no meaningful competition from AMD yet, as we await the Bulldozers in those roles. But, by that time Intel's Socket 2011 Sandy Bridge E chips will be out as well.

These are exactly the things we should see during this year's IDF - the incremental refreshes to the existing Sandy Bridge quad-core mainstream line, followed by early exposure of the high-end 6-core and 8-core Sandy Bridge E/EN single socket Core i7 3960X and dual socket Xeon E5 systems, maybe even some quad socket monsters, and then quite a few even earlier Ivy Bridge 4-core demos.

Expect to see some really lovely mainboards on the dual socket front, with the two CPUs connected using not one but two QPI links, and also having 80 PCIe V3 lanes altogether. That extra QPI link can help the PCIe devices from both sides communicate faster, even when there's no inter-CPU traffic from their own threads. And, finally, it will be fun seeing boards with 16 DDR3-1600 DIMM slots across 8 memory channels. 256GB of really fast RAM is now a reality on a single desktop, and after all, memory is really inexpensive right now.

Finally, Intel's MIC, or Larrabee, remains re-jigged as a - very capable, by the way - supercomputing vector co-processor, and is expected to be shown or at least discussed in greater detail here. Having up to possibly 2 TFLOPS of double precision floating-point power in a single chip, and then likely attaching it via coherent low latency QPI to the rest of the system CPUs, the result being a tightly coupled coprocessor, could benefit many desktops and workstations too.

Nor can we forget the Atom and its plethora of integrated low power SoC variants for smartphone and tablet applications, aimed at the market where - who would believe it - Intel is an underdog versus the all powerful ARM committee of (dis)agreeing but darn rich vendors. For all that and more, watch out for our show reports from IDF 2011 next week. µ


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