It’s fun to watch a David-vs-Goliath contest, especially when the bystanders win the spoils. AMD’s comeback against Intel is astonishing, and we’re all winners, because we’re getting better processors. But how long can it last?
Newbies might not realize that AMD wasn’t always a sharp-eyed stone slinger. A few years ago, the company was nearly on the rocks. Intel was introducing speed-demon x86 processors that AMD couldn’t match and a new CPU architecture (Itanium) that AMD was legally forbidden to clone. AMD was hemorrhaging money and market share.
Then AMD fought back with powerful new microarchitectures (the K7 and K8) and 64-bit x86 extensions. AMD recognized the folly of reckless clock-speed inflation and was the first to design a well-integrated multicore x86 processor. Meanwhile, Intel bet the farm on overheated hyper-pipelines and costly Itanium chips, then scrambled to match AMD’s multicore coup with a dual-core kludge. Today, AMD competes strongly in the PC market and is making surprising inroads into the server market as well.
Intel, however, still has two big advantages. First, it’s a much larger company with greater engineering resources. Second, Intel has more fabs and is always the first to roll out next-generation fabrication technology, which virtually guarantees a manufacturing edge.
In particular, Intel has the resources to develop different x86 cores for different markets, such as the lower-power Banias/Dothan microarchitecture for mobile PCs and the higher-throughput NetBurst microarchitecture for desktop PCs and servers. By contrast, AMD always tries to stretch a single microarchitecture across multiple markets, despite the widening power/performance requirements for PCs (especially mobile PCs) and servers.
But now the multicore revolution is changing the rules. It’s becoming practical again to address the whole market with a single microarchitecture. A smaller, simpler core is easier to replicate. A low-power x86 core could be suitable for a single-core mobile processor, replicated two or four times for a desktop processor, and replicated four or eight times for a server processor. Indeed, that’s what Intel is doing: recycling its power-efficient mobile design to create multicore desktop and server processors.
AMD can do that, too. Intel still enjoys a manufacturing edge, but by reducing the advantage of Intel’s engineering resources, AMD might be able to knock the giant down a peg or two.