Column: Small is the Next Big Thing

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Column: Small is the Next Big Thing

SOME SAY the next big thing is the “Internet of Things”—zillions of networked devices like smart watches, smart sensors, even smart clothing. A better name might be the Internet of Small Things, because we’ve always had an Internet of Big Things. Indeed, some of the new small things are just smaller versions of big things.

Which is why Intel recently introduced Quark, its smallest x86 processor core. As the subatomic name implies, it’s smaller than Atom, which now becomes the midsize model. Quark is 20 percent the size of an Atom core and sips only 10 percent as much power. Fabricated in Intel’s 22nm FinFET technology, it would use less than 25 milliwatts. Only one watt for 40 cores!

A few years ago, Intel swore some industry analysts to secrecy, disclosed this project, and requested our feedback. My first suggestion was to keep the core small by using a subset of the x86 architecture,even if it prevented the core from running the latest software. This advice was controversial, but I didn’t think a fully compatible core would be small enough.

My second suggestion was to make it synthesizable. So-called “soft” cores are software models that can generate circuit layouts. Although they are less efficient than custom circuits, they are easier to integrate in chip designs and can be manufactured at any chip foundry. Finally, I urged Intel to license the core to other companies.

Intel heeded two-thirds of my advice. Quark reverts to the original Pentium architecture from 1993, dropping support for extensions like SSE, and is synthesizable. So far, though, it’s not licensable. Intel willcollaborate with other companies but won’t give them full control over design and manufacturing.

Oh, well, two out of three ain’t bad. And I think Intel will eventually license Quark— though probably with some entanglements.

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