x86 won’t crash and burn, says AMD
Posted:02 Nov 2012
Once a wimpy core among the jungle of superscalar and Reduced Instruction Set Computing Architectures, the x86 became known as a dominant force.
However, the x86 is now poised awkwardly at a peak after one of the greatest rocket rides in high tech history.
It now enters a phase that will someday be described as a decline. It will decline, but it will not completely break down.
It will live to a ripe old age and maybe someday experience a re-birth.
That’s certainly what Rory Read believes. The Advanced Micro Devices CEO hopes to go on creating custom x86 processor cores for a very long time.
Along with Lisa Su, Mark Papermaster and others, Read also has been planning for some time how AMD will also make ARM-based processors.
He telegraphed those plans from his first analyst event when he talked about the importance of ambidextrous SoC architectures.
When asked if he meant that AMD would make ARM-based chips,
Read evaded the question and said only, "it’s a slow reveal."
Last one standing
This leaves Intel as the sole survivor, making it the last chip maker with its fortunes staked to the x86 processor architecture.
It’s not a bad place to be left standing, really.
The market is still the second largest in non-memory semiconductors with annual unit sales measured in hundreds of millions. I
ts 80 per cent-plus share of it makes Intel easily the largest semiconductor company in the world.
Unlike the largest non-memory market of smartphone processors, it has average selling prices that range from about $100 for client CPUs to more than $1,000 for server chips.
But those prices are eroding like bad California beachfront property.
ARM is on the rise with a penny- and power-pinching architecture that enables chips for clients and servers both selling in the low-rent neighbourhood of about $20.
Soon they will even include 64bit varieties with performance nearly on par with members of the x86 family.
At this inflection point when we are watching a slow motion shift of monarchies from x86 to ARM, it’s worth remembering we are also watching the decline of microprocessor architecture.
Increasingly system design is all about the software and the user experience.
A long time Lenovo and former IBM tech executive commented that there really aren’t many big semiconductor design issues for mobile systems.
The system issues are all about sensors, industrial design and software, he said.
Once upon a time, engineers made their livings designing the nuances of CPU pipelines the way great architects made skyscrapers and suspension bridges.
Those days are as much part of the technology past as the giant mainframe cabinets and consoles with their built-in ash trays in the Computer History Museum just down the street from the headquarters of Intel Corp.
But that doesn’t mean processors, cores and SoCs are dead. Far from it.
Brilliant engineers will be needed for as far as anyone can see into the horizon to design the chips that drive tomorrow’s personal and cloud computers.
But microprocessor architecture and the x86 specifically no longer reign supreme.
So the x86 is dead. Long live the x86.
Figure: The Sage mainframe console sports a built-in ash tray (lower left).
– Rick Merritt