Intel is planning to devote most of its energy at IDF on detailing the features behind its processor microarchitecture dubbed “Nehalem,” including a new brand name for this upcoming family of desktop chips.
Intel is expected to officially brand the processors that will be built on the Nehalem architecture as Intel Core on Aug. 11. The first set of these microprocessors will be offered for gaming machines and high-end PCs, and the first processor will be an Extreme Edition chip called the Intel Core i7.
“The Core name is and will be our flagship PC processor brand going forward,” said Sean Maloney, Intel’s executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer.
While Intel has focused most of its energy this year to bring its Atom processors to market to support whole new classes of devices, from low-cost “netbooks” to MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices), Nehalem is expected to be the biggest announcement the chip maker makes in 2008, and it will radically alter the company’s approach to its chip microarchitecture.
Nehalem will allow Intel to create processors that can scale from two to eight cores. Each core supports two instructional threads that will then allow the chips to perform several tasks simultaneously. Intel will also introduce a new technology called QuickPath, a high-speed chip-to-chip interconnect technology that will allow the Nehalem family of processors to connect to another component or another chip on the motherboard.
Perhaps the greatest improvement with Nehalem is that Intel will integrate the memory controller-the part of the CPU that communicates with the DDR (double data rate) memory chips-into the processor die itself, which eliminates the traditional FSB (front side bus). This type of integration will allow for greater levels of performance without increasing the clock speed of the processor, which should also keep the thermal envelope the same as the previous generation.
“When you go to an integrated memory controller, you reduce a substantial portion of the memory latency between the processor, and the system memory and typically the initial access memory latency is a big determinant of performance,” said Dean McCarron, founder of Mercury Research. “Typically, you can get a performance increase of anywhere between 10 and 25 percent when you fix that latency problem.”
Advanced Micro Devices has been building processors with an integrated memory controller for a number of years now, and that chip design helped AMD close the gap between its processors and Intel’s chips, McCarron said. Now, Intel is catching up and will eliminate one of the technological advantages AMD has enjoyed.
“When AMD introduced the integrated memory controller, it allowed them close the gap between them and Intel very rapidly,” McCarron added. “With Intel doing this, the performance gains will probably not be as great as what happened with their competitor because Intel has fairly large caches, which cover up part of that problem. There is little question, however, that making this move results in substantially higher performance gains with no increase in clock rate, so you are getting more performance at the same clock speed.”
Eliminating the FSB
By eliminating the FSB, Intel can also add more features onto the chip itself.
For now, Nehalem chips will be built on the company’s 45-nanometer manufacturing process before Intel switches to a 32-nm process in 2009. The shrinking of the die will also increase the performance of the chips.
It should come as no surprise that Intel is bringing Nehalem into the gaming and enthusiast space first before the mainstream. The customers in this part of the market want the latest and greatest processors available and it allows Intel to gauge their response before brining more chips into the mainstream market.
The name of this extreme chip, the Intel Core i7, will separate it from Intel’s other high-end, quad-core processors such as the QX9775. (Maximum PC claimed to have built a desktop using a Nehalem chip Aug. 6. The result can be seen here.)
“It is simply a means of separating the new and improved high-end desktop processor brand from other existing processor brands and from future brands, which will be announced later,” said an Intel spokesperson, referring to the Core i7 name. “It represents a collection of factors and highlights unique features including performance and other features.”
After the first wave of Nehalem chips hit this part of the market, Intel will likely bring out processors for single-socket server systems and workstations before entering the mainstream desktop market. In the middle of 2009, Intel is expected to offer the first Nehalem chips for notebooks as part of an upgraded Centrino platform.
Intel is withholding some facets of the Nehalem chip, including specific clock speeds-some Web sites claim an initial speed of 2.93GHz-and prices for the processors. Pat Gelsinger, Intel’s senior vice president and general manager of the Digital Enterprise Group, is expected to offer more details at the IDF show in San Francisco, which starts Aug. 19.
In addition to its latest chip technology, Gelsinger is expected to talk about new graphics updates as well. Intel offered new details on its Larrabee chip Aug. 4, which will offer a new type of discrete graphics built on x86 cores, and Nehalem will have the ability to integrate a graphics core into the processor itself.