Something to look forward to: Intel seems to be on the rise lately. After an impressive discussion of the long-term roadmap for the chip manufacturing process and the debut of its new Intel Arc brand of discrete graphics chips (GPUs) for gamers, the company has delivered an equally impressive and comprehensive look at the designs that will be of these and other future ones Chips powered on the last Architecture Day in 2021.
Intel talked about a huge range of articles, here are the highlights:
- Two new CPU core designs – one called the efficiency core and the other called the power core
- A ready-made new CPU for PCs – the highly anticipated Intel Core 12th generation, codenamed Alder Lake – that takes advantage of these designs and incorporates a fascinating element that Intel calls the Thread Director
- A data center oriented CPU (code name Sapphire Rapids) that uses the new performance core
- Two new GPU architectures based on the latest Xe GPU core
- Two complete GPU SoC designs: one focuses on gaming graphics, codenamed Alchemist, the other on AI and high-performance computing, codenamed Ponte Vecchio
- A next generation IPU (Infrastructure Processing Unit) that leverages FPGAs and a custom ASIC to simplify the creation of cloud computing focused data centers
- Numerous software enhancements, including an AI-powered graphics tool called XeSS (Xe Super Sampling) – Intel's equivalent to Nvidia's DLSS technology – aims to improve the speed and quality of 4K gaming graphics, and the latest developments in its OneAPI framework to simplify the Process of writing software that can use all of these different chips
The most important takeaway from this list is that Intel is serious about its intention to regain the crown in the world of high-performance CPUs, but also wants to make a name for itself in GPUs, IPUs, ASICs, and various types of chips. In addition, the company makes a critical strategic fulcrum to stitch smaller, discrete elements together to accomplish this. In short, there are plans to use multiple tile-based designs for multiple types of chips.
In the CPU space, this type of hybrid architecture represents a big change for the company, but competitors like AMD and Apple have shown that they can offer a huge performance advantage.
Much of this comes from Arms big.LITTLE design methodology for mobile chips, which was introduced in 2011 with the Cortex-A7 CPU. These early arm designs focused on energy savings through use in smartphones and other battery operated devices. However, as AMD and Apple recently demonstrated, similar hybrid computing concepts can be used to combine multiple cores together for large performance gains. These chiplet-based designs use various types of fast interconnect technology so that multiple computer “tiles” essentially function as one large unit.
In the case of Intel, the company has created a new efficiency core and a new performance core that it combines in its next-generation Alder Lake CPUs for both desktop and mobile PCs. A new twist that Intel is also bringing to Alder Lake – which is slated to make its official debut this fall – is a new piece of hardware the company is calling the Thread Director. Thread Director will provide some unique benefits to Alder Lake PCs running Windows 11 and should also demonstrate some benefits to Windows 10-based Alder Lake computers.
This goes back to how these hybrid multi-core CPU designs work. As tempting as the idea of combining multiple computing units into a single logical unit may sound, it won't be of much use without the appropriate software to leverage this design.
For Windows-based PCs, it turns out that much of the hard work of determining which elements of a software application workload should be sent to which core type is handled by the Windows thread manager. What many do not know, however, is that until now, these decisions have often been made based on intelligent guesswork about what a particular process was doing on the CPU. With Thread Director, Intel has created a hardware-based mechanism to provide telemetry information about the types of instructions and specific requests that a particular thread is using on the CPU. As it dynamically collects this data, the Thread Director sends the details back to the Windows Thread Manager so that it can more intelligently map where different threads should go. The end result is more efficient use of the capabilities of a hybrid multi-core CPU, which should result in better overall performance.
In addition to the benefits of Thread Director, the work shows a new level of collaboration between Intel and Microsoft to achieve tight integration. By focusing the greatest efforts on Windows 11, it also shows how the two companies once worked to advance the PC industry.
The new endeavors around graphics processing and GPUs are important steps forward for Intel too. Challenging both Nvidia and AMD in the discrete GPU market is not an easy task – especially given their past missteps in the market. With GPUs growing in importance, not just for gaming, but also for AI acceleration, data analytics, and other uses, it's easy to see why Intel has worked hard to bring these forward.
Finally, a few comments on the data center-oriented Ponte Vecchio GPU SoC that was presented at Architecture Day. Intel demonstrated the massive new chip that ran some impressive early benchmarks and outperformed Nvidia's current best inference and training performance on the convolutional neural network ResNet 50. This chip already combines many of Intel's new initiatives in a single component: pure architectural advancements in discrete GPUs as well as the integration of several process and packaging technologies. From Fovero's chip stacking and EMIB high-performance connections to combining the new Intel 7 process technology with state-of-the-art tiles from other foundries, Ponte Vecchio seems to be a technological masterpiece.
Intel has to implement its aggressive vision in chip design, packaging, and manufacturing to succeed with Ponte Vecchio, but it's certainly a formidable proposition of where the company should go.
Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC, a technology consultancy providing strategic advisory and market research services to the technology and professional finance communities. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.