Are we reaching the end of the road with the relentless continuous drop in computer prices and surge in performance? There are some interesting changes lurching into view. Intel has been the forerunner in CPU chip design (with 80% of the market for PC CPUs) but the ending of Moore’s Law and incredible growth in mobile devices such as smart phones and tablet computers are going to have an impact on your life shortly.
Why do you need to bother about this stuff? Well – computing is generally a key part of any engineering professional’s life and it is vital to know how these changes will affect your work and personal life.
Most of us have probably heard of Moore’s Law which has operated like clockwork over the past fifty years and predicts that the number of transistors stuffed into a piece of silicon doubles roughly every two years. From 2014, component dimensions are poised to shrink to 14 nanometres. At this point, quantum tunnelling effects make it very difficult for processors to operate effectively. One suggestion to extend Moore’s Law is to get the transistor to switch between four states, thus doing the work of two transistors. But a brilliant way of dealing with this problem now, as implemented by Intel, is to use a 3-dimensional chip architecture.
3-d is the way to go
Traditionally, integrated circuits have had a two-dimensional flat structure, with a metal gate straddling a flat conducting channel of silicon. This gate controls the current flowing from the source electrode to the drain electrode (each electrode located at opposite ends of the channel of silicon). The incredibly small size of the gate has now made it rather ineffective in switching the transistor.
Intel has now cleverly made the conducting channel a vertical silicon fence that rises above the surface of the silicon. The gate straddles this 3-d structure and has three surfaces in which to control the flow of current; thus making new transistor designs considerably faster and consuming far lower power.
Mobile is growing incredibly fast and low power with RISC
The mobile market (phones and tablets) is growing in leaps and bounds and this is where things get somewhat tricky for Intel. Most of chips in the mobile market are designed by ARM (Advanced RISC machines) who licence out to various (competing) chipmakers throughout the world. Some of you may remember ARM from the early ubiquitous British ACORN computers.
ARM Processors are incredibly compact, work at low operating temperatures and have minimal power consumption compared to the Intel’s chips (which drain in between two and ten times more power). ARM doesn’t (currently !) have any tedious requirements for backward compatibility, which Intel has to work hard on ensuring.
But the biggest bugbear is backwards compatibility with software
However as we sadly know - software is always considerably more expensive than hardware. So even if you were given a free computer with a hundred times the performance, you would be reluctant to change over to it, if your existing software wouldn’t run. Intel’s architecture is complex because of the need to maintain backwards compatibility with earlier versions of software. Something quite daunting for a chip designer moving from a 16-bit 8086/88 processor to the current 64-bit versions. The ARM processor has been designed around the 32-bit processor and is still fundamentally eighties architecture but is incompatible with the broad range of Intel-based software.
ARM-based designs have been thrust into the limelight because of Intel’s rapidly increasing complexity and resulting high power consumption; which makes Intel difficult to use in small battery powered consumer devices where backwards compatibility is not a major issue. But…..undoubtedly, backwards compatibility will soon be a major issue ! Watch this space as to how this issue unfolds.
So what do you need to do about this?
• Keep reading about new developments with Intel and mobile computing
• Observe what happens to Moore’s Law in the next two years
• Look at how mobile computing deals with the compatibility issue with Intel-based software
• Watch and seize openings with the rapid convergence of mobile and traditional computing
An interesting observation from Rick Cook: Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning.
Thanks to the Economist and Guillermo Marraco for some excellent commentary on the subject.
Yours in engineering learning