Intel gives Moore's Law curve a tick upwards

New technology ensures the law stays valid. Stephen Bell reports

Intel, launching its long-signalled 45 nanometre chip geometry earlier this month, directed the demonstration of its capabilities to two distinct markets.

The first is scientific and commercial users with applications heavy on compute capability, and the second is the video gaming and home video-file editing sector.

At the lauch in Sydney, live demonstrations of a Xeon 5400 (previously code-named Harpertown) quad-core processor using the 45nm technology against the equivalent previous generation 5300 (Clovertown) showed a 45% improvement in speed when processing the Black-Scholes algorithm, a complex compute-intensive calculation for pricing stock options.

At a later presentation, Intel chose the editing of a high-definition home video recording to run in parallel on the two machines. This demonstrated an improvement of the same order, which some of the journalists present rated more convincing — after all, the video could be seen, whereas graphical bars demonstrating the alleged progress of the Black-Scholes calculation might easily have been simulated, said one cynic.

The video processing task uses a newly developed instruction set known as SSE4, which includes a number of complex manipulations such as vector calculations and text-string processing as basic instructions.

Video editing, once a professional job involving purpose-built equipment, is now firmly established as a routine task for the home user, said Tom Kilroy, vice-president and general manager of Intel’s digital enterprise group.

Virtualisation is also signalled as a major potential market for the increased grunt of the new chipsets.

The 45nm technology embodies a new design of transistor, which uses compounds of the metal hafnium to form the insulating layer in the transistors. This reduces the leakage of current which limited the fabrication of dense fast processor chips using earlier technologies. The new quad-core chips pack 820 million transistors into their 107 square-mm size. Some of this is exploited in creating larger cache storage as well as faster raw processing speed.

This, Intel claims, will continue the validity of Moore’s Law “well into the next decade”. The law, named for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, states that the number of transistors on a chip will double approximately every two years, pushing processing speed and memory capacity up exponentially.

The new technology is also rated as improving energy efficiency by up to 38%, allowing Intel to claim some important green credibility.

The quad Core 5400 Xeon processor has been released, with a dual-core chip to follow later in the year and a single-core in the first quarter of next year. Volume supply of desktops featuring the 5400 are expected by February.

The second half of 2008 will see the release of a multiprocessor based on 45 nm technology, codenamed Dunnington.

In keeping with what it calls its “tick-tock model”, Intel plans to continue alternating new chip technologies and new processor architectures, year by year. The Core architecture was the last “tock”, 45nm geometry is a “tick” and mid-next year will bring the next “tock”, a new architecture, codenamed Nehalem. This will feature a built-in memory controller, which Intel calls QuickPath Interconnect, replacing the front-side bus. The principle of such a design has been pre-empted by rival AMD, which calls its architecture DirectConnect.

Bell travelled to Sydney courtesy of Intel

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Tags technologyxeon 5400Moore's Lawintel

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