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The Multicore Panacea

By David Needle (Send Email)
Posted Dec 20, 2005


Robert Colwell, a former chief microprocessor architect at Intel, says much-hyped dual- and multicore chips aren't the final or even best solution to improved system performance. Ex-Intel chip architect said competition from AMD is good for the industry and Intel.

"If there is a crying need in the general population for greater performance, and you become aware of that and you fill that need, you should reap the rewards and make all the money," Colwell told internetnews.com.

But Colwell said the impetus to move to dual- and multicore is far more driven by the inability of chip companies such as Intel  and AMD to keep ever faster processors cool enough to run safely and efficiently.

"If I wanted to speed up my computers, the first thing I'd do is add memory, then get a better chipset, then better 3D graphics, and a faster hard drive," said Colwell. "Intel is pumping up the processor because that's what it owns. I would really like, for example, attachments I get in my e-mail to open faster, but that's not a function of the CPU.

"Other parts of the system will improve, but they aren't controlled by Intel, and the software to take advantage of dual-core isn't really there yet."

Colwell, who last worked at Intel in 2001, authored a recently published book on his experiences there called "The Pentium Chronicles: The People, Passion, and Politics Behind Intel's Landmark Chips."

In an interview he addressed several current issues related to his former employer. He characterized AMD's more recent competitiveness good for Intel and the industry.

"It's called competition and capitalism," said Colwell. "From 1995 to 2000, Intel strode the world like a behemoth; we didn't really have any competition and that's when you get stupid and lazy. You get used to the idea anything you ship will and should be accepted because there's no alternative."

His guess is if AMD keeps executing it has a good chance at achieving 25 percent market share in the next few years.

"They have some great designers, there, I think they will do well," said Colwell. "For Intel to maintain 85 to 90 percent share is an unnatural position. But I don't think it will ever be 50/50 because Intel has too much expertise in fabs and manufacturing."

For the Itanium, Intel's high end processor it started designing over a decade ago with HP, Colwell sees trouble ahead.

"If you don't ship in volume in the silicon business, you will lose to whoever does. That was the lesson of Alpha, which was a damn good architecture, better than anything Intel had, but what the world cares about is running software."

Alpha, developed by the long-defunct Digital Equipment Corp., was a 64-bit RISC  microprocessor released in the early 1990s. Alpha ultimately failed, though it had strong supporters and by some estimates was a multibillion dollar business.

Colwell said his main motivation for writing the book is that when you design something as complicated as a microprocessor you don't really get to do it again -- either it's successful or it's not.

"I want to give readers some insight into the process and hopefully there are some lessons there to be learned from what happened."

This article was originally published on internetnews.com.

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