Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Intel - the walking dead

Referring to Intel's latest Edison release at CES, I mentioned "Perhaps now they have invented something where they can be good at.". After investigating the Quark architecture more, I do not think the same anymore.

The Quark processor is based in Pentium architecture, as Intel states. This means it's eventually based on 32-bit x86 architecture, which dates 40 years back. Why an earth Intel selected Pentium instead Atom as the starting point for Quark? I can only conclude that Intel has reached dead-end in it's effort to decreasing energy consumption of Atom architecture.

Even if Atom cores are advertized energy efficient, the overall energy comsumption of the whole CPU environment including chipset and others is way above acceptable limit of embedded systems. With Quark, Intel advertises they have managed to drop the energy consumption down to 1/10 of Atom cores. Such a tenfold reduction of Atom energy consumption is a can not task. So, something else is needed, and the answer is reversing back to Pentium architecture.

Well, let's rewind the clock back for 20 years. With Pentium architecture you loose all the processor development Intel has done for the last two decades. No 64-bit registers, no out-of-order execution, no MMX, no SIMD, and more. All this means that you can not run latest Microsoft software in the CPU. Time to seek for the floppies to find DOS and Windows 3.1... Linux runs, and that's the only supported OS at the moment.

The concept of integrating the whole CPU environment with connectivity into a SD-card form factor is clever. I can immediately imagine several use-cases for the approach: a system having bare bone functionality implemented with a tiny MCU, and if connectivity and user interface is needed, that can be provided in physical form of SD-card add-on module. You get them both, minimal cost base system, and state-of-the-art Internet of Things support.

The Quark is just a Intel's last effort to struggle against non-existence at embedded market. I'm not convinced, and I hope someone will soon introduce similar concept based on ARM architecture.

Edit Jan 18th:
Intel confirmed it will cut 5000 jobs, which is 5% of its global workforce, due to falling computer sales. As Intel fails to enter into new market segments, simultaneously loosing sales in traditional markets, the company can't stand for long. Google is said to developed it's own processor for data center use, which may indicate Intel loosing that market as well.

IBM and NVidia have released joint effort in creating more energy efficient computing solution for data centers for enterprise and scientific use. At the moment, Intel+NVidia are ruling the Top-10 of Green 500 list, but that may change soon, if Intel doesn't improve. As Intel fails to improve energy efficiency of its embedded CPUs, I'm not optimistic they manage to do so in supercomputers either.


Guido Stepken discusses also about Intel power efficiency in his posting The irrelevance of Microsoft/Intel vs Linux/ARM

Edit Feb 11th:
My dreams have come true! Electric Imp has released an ARM CPU based Wifi-enabled embedded computer in SD-card form factor! It's available at Sparkfun and other distributors. More information and instructions at Sparkfun site:https://learn.sparkfun.com/tutorials/electric-imp-breakout-hookup-guide/all

Thanks to Jan TÃ¥ngring @ ElektronikTidningen for the hint. Here is the original article in ETN: http://www.etn.se/58507 (in Swedish).

AdaFruit has also published an article http://www.adafruit.com/blog/2012/12/06/new-product-electric-imp/

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