Hardware, Large and Small, Made Big Headlines in 2008

In a year that saw the "netbooks" and mini-notebooks take off in surprising numbers, the biggest of the big supercomputer systems - the IBM Roadrunner and the Cray XT Jaguar - broke new barriers when it came to high-performance computing. At the head of both developments were rival chip makers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, each aggressively working to outdo the other by creating small and smaller microprocessors.

The processor competition and advances in both low-cost, ultraportable laptops and HPC illustrated that in 2008, the best developments in IT hardware came in two sizes: big and small.

On the small side, low-cost netbooks and mini-notebooks came into their own, despite the fact that these types of laptops were initially expected to have the biggest impact only in emerging markets, such as China, India and elsewhere, and with school children.

The polar opposite of these mini-notebooks were supercomputers, and this year proved a milestone for these large, high-performance computing systems. In June, IBM announced that its Roadrunner system had officially broken the petaflop mark - 1 quadrillion calculations per second. Later, Cray also leapt the petaflop barrier when it upgraded its XT Jaguar system for the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

While it might not have been a surprise that supercomputer makers such as IBM and Cray were ready to break the petaflop mark - both companies, and the HPC community in general, had been steadily moving toward that plateau for years - the increasing popularity of low-cost netbooks, mini-notebooks and ultraportable PCs proved a surprise to anyone following the PC market.

By the time the third quarter had rolled around - and with the financial meltdown on Wall Street finally coming into focus - sales of these types of laptops, especially in Western Europe and the United States, helped grow the overall PC industry. How much impact these new types of laptops will have on the PC industry in 2009 is a guessing game, but these notebooks seem destined to stick around for a while.

At the same time, any PC vendor worth a mention jumped at the chance to flood the market with these types of laptops. While Asus and its Eee PC paved the way, the "me too" attitude engulfed nearly every PC vendor, with Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer, Fujitsu and Lenovo all joining in.

While Intel and its Atom processor and platform helped create the market for these types of notebooks - the market also formed at the expense of Intel's older processors, such as the Celeron chip - Via also showed that it could take a small amount of the market for itself; its chips were the ones HP chose for its first Mini-Note laptop.

AMD announced that by year's end, it, too, will enter this market, although not the very low-end netbook market. Instead, AMD plans to focus on ultraportable and ultrathin laptops with screen sizes starting at 10 inches. AMD's "Yukon" platform is now slated for release in early 2009.

The fact that AMD would even think about entering new markets by the end of 2008 seemed unlikely at the beginning of the year. However, after the failure to launch its quad-core Opteron processor on time in 2007, AMD slowly began to stabilize its operations by the end of this year.

Although AMD lost money in 2008, the company launched a new 45-nanometer Opteron chip late in the year - "Shanghai" - and then executives split AMD in half, spinning off the manufacturing division into a new venture temporarily called "The Foundry Company."

Intel kept up the pace itself. First, the company delivered Atom - one processor for netbooks and ultraportables and another variation for mobile Internet devices - and then offered a new processor based on microarchitecture called "Nehalem." The first of these chips, called the Core i7, rolled out by year's end in desktops from Dell, Gateway and other vendors.

While Intel and AMD continued their fight for the x86 processor market when it came to laptops of all shapes and sizes, the two also battled when it came to supercomputers and those machines that made up the Top 500 list. While Cray and IBM jockeyed for position for the top spot on the list, Intel and AMD tried to show that their chips best served the needs of HPC.

By year's end, Intel was the dominant chip architecture of the Top 500 supercomputer list, but AMD could claim that seven of the top 10 systems used the company's Opteron processor.