Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Intel goes full speed on chip development

On a day Intel turned up the pressure on Advanced Micro Devices with the promise of new products and state-of-the-art manufacturing, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore cautioned that his celebrated Moore's Law - which states that computing power will double every 18 months or so - would someday come to an end.

The world's largest computer company said Tuesday that it was on schedule to launch its next big computer chip - a product code-named Penryn - on Nov. 12. It also demonstrated a working version of Penryn's successor - Nehalem - at its semi-annual developers' forum for hardware engineers in San Francisco.

Intel's twin announcements - along with the news it has two plants, or fabs, running its latest 45-nanometer production technology - offered fresh evidence Intel has picked up the pace of technological development to the detriment of AMD. The new generation of plants will create circuits that are 45 nanometers, or billionths of a meter, wide, allowing chips to run faster and use less energy.

"We're cranking up full-scale production in two fabs with 45-nanometer" technology, Chief Executive Paul Otellini said. "We think this is a sustainable competitive advantage."

Intel also showed off a chip made on a 32-nanometer production line, the successor to the 45-nanometer plants. The static random access memory, or SRAM, chip - with 1.9 billion transistors - suggests Intel is making progress toward the new technology, which it expects to use commercially in 2009.

"They are pushing hard," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. "Intel's strength is focusing on a goal and going like a bat out of hell."

It is doing what it said it would do, added Roger Kay, president of research company Endpoint Technologies Associates.

The only note of caution came from Moore, who said his Moore's Law, first stated in 1965, will eventually expire. The dictum, which has gained fame as Intel has steadily shrunk the size of its chips while improving their performance, states that the number of transistors placed on a piece of silicon doubles about every two years.

"There really are some fundamental limits," said Moore, who suggested the limits may be reached within 10 or 15 years. "We will hit something that is fundamental."

Until then, Intel will continue to innovate. Nehalem, for instance, is scheduled for launch during the second half of 2008 and will come in a model sporting eight cores, or computing engines. Intel now makes single-, dual- and four-core chips.

The company said it is ahead of schedule reducing the power needs of its Silverthorne chip, a product it is targeting for tiny notebooks and portable Internet devices. Otellini said it is on track to achieve a tenfold reduction in the chip's power demands by next year, instead of the initial target of 2010.

AMD last week said it doesn't see Intel's 45-nanometer technology putting it at a disadvantage. "I think we're going to be very competitive," said Brent Barry, an AMD product marketing manager.

He pointed to the company's newly announced three-core chip as an example of its innovation. AMD also launched a new quad-core Opteron chip, code-named Barcelona, this month.

At the forum, which attracted 5,000 hardware engineers, Otellini said Intel plans to demonstrate a product it calls Larrabee in 2008. Larrabee will compete in the high-end graphics-chip market against products from Nvidia and AMD's ATI graphics unit. It will include 12 cores and be appropriate for applications in scientific computing.

David Ragones, a product manager at Nvidia, played down the coming competition. "Customers look to Nvidia for the best graphics experience," he said. "It will continue to be that way."


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