San Francisco -- The latest maneuvers in the chess match between Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Intel Corp. find the rivals advancing toward similar architectures. That leaves AMD in a difficult spot, because it trails Intel by an entire process node in silicon technology. There are enough moves ahead that no endgame is at hand, but it's not looking good for AMD.
By this time next year, Intel will ship its first server processors with integrated memory controllers and a new high-speed interconnect, matching what AMD has been offering for a few years. By sometime in 2009, both companies will have graphics, and possibly cores for security or Ethernet networking, on their processors as well.
Intel will have an edge in performance, power and cost because it will deliver its parts in 45-nanometer technology, with an eye on the 32-nm node. AMD's parts will be mainly in 65-nm technology, moving to 45 nm.
In the course of playing this game, the world's biggest semiconductor company has become a system-on-chip convert. At the Intel Developer Forum here last week, Intel discussed at least four SoC designs it has in the works for markets ranging from handheld gadgets to high-end visualization systems.
How the new SoC dynamics play out in the traditional X86 contest remains to be seen, with several key questions still unanswered.
Will Intel's new QuickPath processor interconnect have an edge in raw technology or time-to-market over AMD's HyperTransport? Will either company do a better job of gathering around itself a robust group of co-processor makers that may be future SoC partners? And, perhaps most important, who will make the more effective moves in the emerging game of identifying markets and creating the right mix of cores in a microprocessor to address them?
"The next 18 months will be pretty interesting," said Dean McCarron, principal of Mercury Research (Cave Creek, Ariz.), which tracks PC processors and graphics. The question, he said, is how the integrated devices handle the transition from graphics and other cores that are resident in chip sets to cores that are contained in the CPUs. "A lot of it depends on the market segmentation," he said.
Both companies seem to recognize that putting a processor and a graphics core on a single die for thin and light notebooks is a big win.
In 2009, AMD will release Falcon, a notebook CPU and the first of its Fusion CPUs with on-board graphics. Last week, Intel confirmed it also will put its CPUs and graphics into a single package in 2009, using its 45-nm process.
The notebook is a key target because it is on course to become the biggest slice of the computer market measured in units by 2009, exceeding desktops, ac- cording to Intel.
AMD had a slight edge in incorporating graphics because of the topnotch graphics cores it acquired with ATI Technologies last year. But Intel blunted that edge last week, announcing plans to migrate from 90-nm to 32-nm process technology for its graphics cores by 2010.
"We are the No. 1 supplier of PC graphics through our integrated chip set products today, and we've been using silicon technology that's one or two generations behind the state of the art," Intel CEO Paul Otellini said in his IDF keynote. "We're changing that pace starting next year."
Servers are likely to follow the pattern set by Sun Microsystems, putting Ethernet media access controllers and crypto accelerators on the die rather than integrate graphics. Desktops will likely carve out a middle ground.
AMD and Intel will compete to define and serve a variety of market segments in these broader sectors. Both companies are laying the foundation for new, core-based design processes.
Otellini said Intel's second-generation 45-nm chip set--the Nehalem family, set to ship in a year--sports a dynamic, modular architecture that can be readily configured for different cores and caches.
Intel has grouped previously separate server, desktop and notebook CPU design teams into larger groups charged with designing a handful of broad architectures and derivatives. It pulled out some engineers to create SoC designs, said Stephen Smith, operations manager for Intel's Digital Enterprise Group.
Now Intel has separate SoC designs in the works for consumer gear, network accelerators (Tolapai), high-end visualization systems (Larabee) and handhelds (Silverthorne) .Most of the new products will ship or be demonstrated for the first time in 2008.
Otellini said the consumer CPU will include an audiovisual pipeline block and will be shown at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.