The Changing Face Of The Modern CPU

When I first started using PCs regularly, back in the early 1990s, systems using Intel processors were priced at a premium. So that meant my first couple of Windows PCs (we had a Commodore 128 at home before that) ran a Cyrix processor – a 486DLC if memory serves.

But through most of the 1990s Intel ruled the roost. Their “Intel Inside” campaign was one of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time. But the world has moved on and we are on the cusp of a new processor era.

Over the last decade a number of changes have taken place in the world of technology. But if I were to summarise those changes into one word, it would be diversification. While the 1990s were all about powerful and capacious servers and increasingly capable desktop and laptop computers, the last decade has been about distributed computing that is available on multiple platforms.

The big players of the 1990s and early 2000s, Microsoft and Intel, have fallen back from dominance as Google, Apple, Qualcomm and others have taken over many of our minute-to-minute computing needs.

In order to extract the maximum number of processor cycles per watt of energy consumption – one of the key metrics used to determine the effectiveness of a processor – companies are increasingly turning to processors that are tuned to specific tasks.

Server and PC processors will keep moving along the Moore’s Law curve for a while yet, until the laws of physics crunch them completely. The next generation of CPUs will shrink to 7nm but, eventually, the thermal limits of getting smaller will drive Intel and AMD, the leader and challenger when it comes to the traditional computer and server business, to create new processor architectures.

This is where the likes of Qualcomm, Apple, IBM and others see their opening. They are all designing processors for specific applications.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips pull together they core functions of mobile devices into a single chip that is highly energy efficient and deliver strong performance without burning a hole in your pocket.

Apple, through their acquisition of PA Semi and other companies, has designed the A-series processors, with the ridiculously named A11 Bionic the most recent power plant they’ve manufactured through their partnerships with TSMC and Samsung. This chip is all about powering the iPhone, iPad and Apple TV with a related set of processors powering the Apple Watch.

IBM is creating their own processors specifically designed for the increasing need to tune CPUs for AI workloads. Their latest device is the POWER9, which the company says boost performance for those applications substantially over other processor platforms.

And lets not forget the role of GPUs for carrying out intensive calculations and operations – an area where AMD has excelled.

What does all this mean?

When I started working in the IT business, people used to say “No one ever got fired for hiring IBM”. When I became involved in procuring systems, that idiom could easily have been adapted to say “No one ever got fired for buying Intel”. But that held true when computer systems were high-powered generalists. Other than tweaking the storage and memory capacities, there was little difference in what a server or computer could do.

But today, we have diversity in the types of devices, use-cases and places we use our tech. And in order to optimise those devices for those different applications new classes of processors have been created.

That’s created an interesting dynamic. I remember putting together procurement plans that talked about processor specifications. But I think we are moving away from a “speeds and feeds” view towards a more functional, business-outcome focussed perspective.

And that means buying devices that are specifically made for particular functions. Microsoft learned, the hard way, that you can’t take a desktop interface and shrink it to fit a small touchscreen. Similarly, you can’t take a desktop processor and put it in laptop or smartphone and give users what they want. Long battery life and low operating temperatures are among the needs of mobile users.

“Big” processors still have a place; AMD and Intel aren’t going away soon. While we may not be buying as many servers for our won data centres, managed service and cloud providers still need lots of servers. And despite flat sales, desktop and notebook computers remain an important platform.

Application-specific processors, like those tuned for AI, mobile devices and other use-cases will become the big growth area in the processor business. And that means our technology strategies and procurement plans need to keep track of developments in those fields and adjust accordingly.


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