AMD's server chip volume has dropped considerably since last year. So, there is little doubt that this trend will reverse in Q3 and Q4 of 2007 with Barcelona. This is true because even at lower clock speeds, Barcelona packs considerably more punch than K8 Opteron at similar power draw. The 2.0Ghz Q3 chips should replace around half of AMD's current Opterons and faster 2.5Ghz chips replacing even the fastest 3.0Ghz K8 Opterons in Q4. This should leave Intel with two faster server chip speeds in Q4 with this most likely falling to a single speed in Q1 08. However, Intel may be able to pull farther ahead in Q2 08. I'm sure this will be confusing to those who are comparing the Penryn launch with Woodcrest last year and assuming that the highest speed grades will be released right away. The problem with this view is that Penryn is leading 45nm in Q4 of this year whereas Woodcrest did not lead 65nm in 2006. Instead, Woodcrest was six months behind Presler which went into 65nm production in October 2005 and launched in December 2005. This explains why Woodcrest was able to hit the ground running and launch at 3.0Ghz. June 2006 was six months after 65nm Presler in December 2005. Taking this as the pattern for 45nm would mean top initial speeds wouldn't be available until Q2 2008. This seems true since Intel has been pretty quiet about Q1 08 release speeds. If the market expands in early 2008, Intel should get a boost as AMD feels the pinch in volume capacity caused by the scale down at FAB 30 and the increased die size of quad core K10. This combines with Intel's cost savings due to ramping 45nm to put Intel at its greatest advantage. However, by the end of 2008, this advantage will be gone and Intel won't see any new advantage until 2010 at the earliest.
To understand why Intel's window of advantage is so small you need to be aware of the differences in process introduction timelines, ramping speeds, base architecture speed, and changing die size advantages. A naiive assumption would be that: 1.) Intel's timeline maintains a process launch advantage over AMD, 2.) that Intel transitions processes faster, 3.) that Penryn is considerably faster than Conroe and that Nehalem is considerably faster than Penryn, and 4.) that Nehalem maintains Penryns's die size advantage. However, each of these assumptions would be incorrect.
Q2 06 - Woodcrest
Q3 07 – Barcelona Trailing by 5 quarters.
Q4 07 - Penryn
Q3 08 – Shanghai Trailing by 3 quarters.
Q4 08 - Nehalem
Q2 09 – Bulldozer Trailing by 2 quarters.
Q4 09 - Westmere
Q1 10 - 32nm Bulldozer Trailing by 1 quarter.
Intel's Tick Tock timeline is excellent but AMD's timeline steadily shortens Intel's lead over the next two and a half years. This essentially means that the dominance that C2D enjoyed for more than a year will not be repeated. I suppose it is possible that 45nm will be late but AMD continues to say that it is on track. The main reason I am inclined to believe them is the die size. When AMD moved to 90nm they only had a small shrink in die size at first and then they later had a second shrink. AMD only reduced Brisbane's die size to 70% and nine months later AMD could presumably do a second shrink. But they aren't; Barcelona shows the same 70% reduction as Brisbane. This suggests to me that AMD has skipped a second die shrink and is concentrating on the 45nm launch. I'm pretty certain that if 45nm were going to be late that we would be seeing another shrink of 65nm as a stopgap.
2.) Process Transition
Most people who talk about Intel's process development only know that Intel launches a process sooner than AMD. However, the amount of time it takes Intel to actually field a new process is also important. Let's look at Intel's 65nm history starting with an Intel Presentation concerning process technology. Page 2:
Announced shipping 65nm for revenue in October 2005
CPU shipment cross-over from 90nm to 65nm projected for Q3/06
And, from Intel's website, 65-Nanometer Technology:
Intel has been delivering 65nm processors in volume for over one year and in June 2006 reached the 90-65nm manufacturing "cross-over," meaning that Intel produced more than half of total mobile, desktop and server microprocessors using industry-leading 65nm process technology.
So, we can see that Intel did quite well and even beat its own projection by reaching crossover in late Q2 instead of Q3. October 2005 to June 2006 would be eight months to 50% conversion. For AMD, the INQ had a rumor for shipping in October and we know it officially launched December 5th 2006. Let's assume that this is true since it matches with Intel's October revenue shipping date with a December release in 2005. The AMD Q1 2007 Earnings Transcript from April 19th 2006 says:
100% of our fab 36 wafer starts are on 65 nanometer technology today
October 2006 to April 2007 would be 6 months. So, this would mean that AMD made a 100% transition in two months less than it took Intel to reach 50%. Intel's projection of 45nm is very similar with crossover not occuring until Q3 08. What this means is that even though Intel launches 45nm with a headstart in Q4 07, AMD should be completely caught up by Q1 09.
3.) Base Architecture Speed
Intel made grand claims of a 25% increase in gaming performance (40% faster for 3.33Ghz Penryn versus 2.93Ghz Kentsfield). However, according to Anandtech's Wolfdale vs. Conroe Performance review, Penryn is 4.81% faster while HKEPC gets 5.53% faster. A 5% speed increase is similar to what AMD got when it moved from 130nm to 90nm. The problem that I see is not with Intel's exageration but that Nehalem seems to use the same core. In fact, other than HyperThreading there seems to be no major changes to the core between Penryn and Nehalem. The main improvements with Nehalem seem to be external to the core like an Integrated Memory Controller, point to point communications, L3 cache, and enhanced power management. The real speed increases seem to come primarily from GPU processing and ATA instructions however like Hyperthreading these are not going to make for significant increases in general processing speed. And, since Westmere is the same core on 32nm this means no large general speed increases (aside from clock increases) for Intel processors until 2010 at the earliest. I suppose this then leaves the question of whether AMD will get a larger general speed increase with Bulldozer. Presumably if AMD can manage it they could then pull ahead of Nehalem. Both Intel and AMD are going to use GPU's on the die and both are going to go to more cores. Nehalem might get ahead of Shanghai since while both can do 8 cores Nehalem can also do HyperThreading. But Bulldozer moves back ahead again by allowing 16 actual cores. At the moment it is difficult to imagine a desktop application that could effectively use 8 cores, much less 16 but who knows how it will be in two years.
4.) Die Size
For AMD the goal is to get through the first half of 2008 because the game looks quite different toward the end of 2008. By the time Nehalem is released Intel will already have gotten most of the benefit of 45nm while AMD will only be starting. Intel will lose its small die size MCM advantage because Nehalem is a monolithic quad die like Barcelona. Intel only got a modest shrink of 25% on 45nm and so far has only gotten a 10% reduction in power draw so AMD can certainly stay in the game. It is also a certainty that Nehalem will have a larger die size than quad Penryn. This will be true because Nehalem will have to have both an Integrated Memory Controller and the point to point CSI interface. Nehalem will also add L3 cache. It would not be surprising if the Nehalem die is larger than AMD's Shanghai die. The one positive for Intel is that although yields will be worse with a monolithic die, their 45nm process should be mature by then. However, AMD has shown considerably faster process maturity so yields should be good on Shanghai in Q1 09 as well.
An Aside: AMD's True Importance
Finally, I have to say that AMD is far more important than many give them credit for. I recall a half-baked editorial by Ed Stroligo A World Without AMD where he claimed that nothing much would change if AMD were gone. This notion shows a staggering ignorance of Intel's history. The driving force behind Intel's advance from 8086 to Pentium was Motorola whose 68000 line was initially ahead. It had been Intel's intention all along to replace x86 and Intel first tried this back in 1981 with iAXP 432. It's segmented 16MB addressing looked pretty good compared to 8086's 1MB segmented addressing. However, it looked a lot worse than 68000's flat 16MB addressing which had been released the year before. The very next year iAXP 432 became the Gemini Project which then became the BiiN company. IAXP 432 continued in development with the goal of replacing x86 until 1989. However, this project could not keep up with the rapid pace of x86 as it struggled to keep up with each generation of 68000. When Biin finally folded, a stripped down version of iAXP 432 was released as the embedded i960 RISC processor. Interestingly, as the RISC effort ran into trouble Intel began working on VLIW and when BiiN folded in 1989 Intel released its first VLIW procesor, i860. HP began work on EPIC the same year and five years later, Intel was commited to EPIC VLIW as an x86 replacement.
In 1995 Intel introduced Pentium Pro to take on the established RISC processors and grab more share of the server market. The important point though is that there is no indication that Intel ever intended Pentium Pro to be used on the desktop. We can infer this for a couple of reasons. First, Itanium had been in development for a year when Pentium Pro was introduced and an Itanium release was expected in 1998. Second, with Motorola out of the way (68000 development ended with 68060 in 1994), Intel was not expecting any real competion on the desktop. AMD and Cyrix were still making copies of 80486 so Intel had only planned some modest upgrades to Pentium until Itanium was released. However, AMD released K5 which thoroughly stunned Intel. Although K5 was not that fast it did have a RISC core (courtesy of AMD's 29050 RISC processor) which put K5 in the same class as Pentium Pro and a generation ahead of Pentium. Somehow AMD had managed the impossible and had skipped the Pentium generation. So, Intel went to an emergency plan and two years later released a cost reduced version of Pentium Pro for the desktop, Pentium II. The two year timeline indicates that Intel was not working on a desktop version previous to K5's release. Clearly, we owe Pentium II to K5.
However, AMD purchased Nexgen and released the powerful K6 (which also had a RISC core) just two years later meaning that it arrived at the same time as PII. Once again Intel was forced to scramble and release PIII two years later. We owe PIII to K6. But, AMD had been hard at work on a K5 successor and with the added technology from K6 and some Alpha tech it released K7. Intel was even more shocked this time because K7 was a generation ahead of Pentium Pro. Intel was out of options so it was forced to release the experimental Williamette processor and then follow up with the improved Northwood two years later. We owe P4 to K7. That P4 was experiemental and never expected to be released is quite clear from the pipeline length. The Pentium Pro design had a 14 stage pipeline which was reduced to 10 stages in PII and PIII. Interestingly Itanium also used a 10 stage pipeline. However, P4's pipeline was even bigger than the original Pentium Pro's at 20 stages. Itanium II has an even shorter pipeline at 8 stages so it is clear that Intel does not prefer long pipelines. We can then see that P4 was an aberration caused by necessity and Prescott at 31 stages was a similar design of desperation. Without K8 there would be no Core 2 Duo today and without K10 there would be no Nehalem.
There is no doubt whatsoever that just as 8086's rapid advance against competition from Motorola 68000 stopped the iAXP 432 and shutdown Biin, Intel's necessity of advancing Pentium Pro rapidly on the desktop stopped Itanium. Intel already had experience with VLIW from i860 and would have delivered Merced on schedule in 1998. Given Itanium's speed it could have been viable at as little as 150Mhz. However, Pentium II was already at 450Mhz in 1998 with faster K7 and PIII speeds due the next year. The pace continued rapidly going from Pentium Pro's 150Mhz to PIII's 1.4Ghz. Itanium development simply could not keep up and the grand plans of 1997 for Itanium to become the dominant processor fell apart. The pace has been no less relentless since PIII and Itanium has been kept in a niche server market.
AMD is the sole reason why today Itanium is not the primary processor architecture. To suggest that nothing would change if AMD were gone is an extraordinary amount of self delusion. Intel would happily stop developing x86 and would put its efforts back into Itanium instead. The x86 line is also without any serious desktop replacement. Alpha, MIPS, and ARM stopped being contenders long ago. Power was the last real competitor but it fell out of the running when its desktop chips couldn't keep up and were dropped by Apple. This means that without AMD, Intel's sole competition for desktop processors is VIA. And, just how far behind is VIA? No AMD would mean higher prices and slower development and the eventual phase out of x86. Of course, I guess people can always hope that Intel has given up its goal of more than a quarter century of dropping the x86 line and moving the desktop to a completey proprietary platform.