Intel’s ‘tick-tock’ strategy drives 32nm processor

Intel Corp.’s planned move to a 35-nanometre processor will help usher in faster, cooler desktop and server chips called Westmere, officials said Wednesday.

The world’s biggest microprocessor firm provided a product roadmap update following an announcement earlier in the day that it will invest US$7 billion to revamp three U.S. manufacturing plants. Those facilities in Arizona, New Mexico and Oregon will primarily be used to help ramp up the 32nm technology, which shrinks Intel processors down from its previous 45nm process.

Intel vice-president Steve Smith said the 32nm logic technology inside Westmere could significantly speed up tasks such as full disk encryption. The graphics controller and intregated memory controller, however, will be on a 45nm die, which means power settings and clock frequencies can be adjusted more easily, Smith said.

“As I shrink the core, I consume less power when I clock that core,” he said. “The 32nm technology gives us the most benefit in power-constrained environments. We’re finding more and more of those in the world.”

Smith said Westmere is a good example of Intel’s “tick-tock” methodology in action. For some time now, the company has chosen to introduce a new microarchitecture, such as the recent Nehalem, in an odd-numbered year like 2009. A new silicon technology follows in the even year. The 45nm Nehalem, for example, will be succeeded by a microarchitecture code-named Sandy Bridge in 2011.

The 32nm core allows Intel to build high-end product such as the forthcoming Gulftown, a six-core, 12-thread machine that will likely come out next year. The technology could also allow for more power savings and better graphics at an affordable price point, Smith added.

Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, Calif., said Intel’s plans show the recession has not brought computing advances to a halt.

“If you want to drive the market, if you want to remain competitive, you have to make these kind of investments,” he said. “The fact that they’re not letting the externalities of end user demand and financial market chaos stop them is a huge plus.”

IT managers will most likely take note of Westmere next year, when Intel brings the 32nm processors to its Xeon server segments. This includes its efficient performance (EP) Xeons such as Tylersburg and its expandable (EX) Xeons such as the current Boxboro, which are both on 45nm technology today. Westmere will make itself known primarily on two- and four-socket servers, Smith said.

Smith said Westmere will feature much tighter integration via a “repartitioning” of the client platform and the introduction of a 5 series chipset. Although the economy has lead to rampant speculation about the impact on IT budgets, Brookwood said there will still be buyers for Intel’s technology enhancements.

“There’s a relatively small segment of the market, not more than 10 or 15 per cent, where users are pushing as hard on their computer systems as they can and find it takes too long. If the person sitting in front of that screen is a high-value individual who is expensive or if their productivity is important, the company will say, ‘We can get another 20 per cent out of that person if we upgrade.’”

Others may simply upgrade based on outdated software or because they lack the compute resources to run next-generation operating systems such as Windows 7, Brookwood said.

Intel’s 45nm Havendale/Auburndale might not be produced since the 32nm process is doing so well, Smith said.

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