SAN JOSE, Calif.–Offering a possible peek at how Itanium processors may look in 2007, a senior Intel Corp. engineer on Tuesday unveiled the blueprint for a 1 billion-transistor processor.
Although he discounted the idea that he was making a product announcement, Intel Fellow John Crawford nevertheless appeared to strongly suggest that his blueprint of a four-core processor would likely be developed to power future computers.
“This is eminently doable, and you can expect things of this nature coming out,” said Crawford, who helped design the Pentium and Itanium processors and holds the title of Intel fellow, the chip makers highest-ranking technical position.
“Advances in technology are propelling us toward the era of the 1 billion-chip microprocessor,” and the industry needs to figure out how to design and harness the power of such super chips, he said in a keynote address to several hundred industry engineers and developers at the annual Microprocessor Forum here.
Based on Moores Law–an amazingly accurate prediction Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made 30 years ago that transistor density on chips would double every 18 to 24 months–the first 1 billion-transistor processor will arrive on the market in 2007, putting it in the not-too-distant future for high-tech designers.
While the challenges of designing a 1 billion-transistor processor are daunting, Crawfords presentation indicated that Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., is already well on its way toward resolving many of the major issues.
Showing “how one might use a billion transistors in a server product,” Crawford displayed a blueprint for a processor featuring four cores surrounding a shared 12MB to 16MB memory cache.
: The Heat Issue”>
Multiple cores help address one of the major obstacles to chip designs–heat. While engineers have found ways to reduce power consumption and the heat produced by individual transistors, efforts to boost performance has spurred chip makers to pack more and more transistors into their chips, generating large amounts of heat. By dividing the processors core four ways, the heat is spread out over a wider area, allowing for cooling techniques to work more effectively.
IBMs Power4 processor featured in mid- to high-end servers features dual cores. While Intel has yet to announce plans to build multi-core chips, many industry leaders are, including Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc., which will feature dual-core designs in future PA-RISC and UltraSparc processors for servers.
One of Intels latest technologies, called hyperthreading, also is ideally suited for use with multi-core processors, Crawford said. Hyperthreading, which Intel first debuted in Xeon server processors this year, enables a single CPU to act like two virtual CPUs by splitting what normally would be one data stream into two. The technique makes fuller use of the processor, boosting overall performance up to 30 percent.
In a four-core processor, hyperthreading would speed data exchanges between the cores. Based on current designs, Crawford said, hyperthreading would boost the processors performance about 25 percent.
One area the Intel executive didnt address was at what frequency such a super chip would operate. While the speed of Intels PC processors have generally doubled every two years, with the company currently poised to release a 3GHz Pentium 4 soon, high-end server processors run at slower clock rates and place more emphasis on other design features to boost performance. Intels fastest 64-bit processor, the Itanium 2, currently tops out at 1GHz.
Whatever its eventual frequency, the first 1 billion-transistor chip will offer performance far greater than anything available today, with Crawford adding that developers will have the opportunity to tap that power in new applications.
While there are still many obstacles that need to be overcome before such a processor becomes a reality, he said, such challenges keep his job interesting.
“Were living in exciting times in the semiconductor industry,” he said.