Against slowing markets, Intel and AMD launch new chips

Both the desktop and server markets are taking it on the chin but the two x86 vendors are pushing ahead.

Intel has always had the philosophy of investing through downturns, so when the economy turns back up, it's ready with modern product, not something from two or more years back. This current situation is different from other slowdowns but Intel and AMD as well are not changing course.

Amid a PC slowdown so bad it actually mothballed a fabrication plant, Intel has announced plans to start volume production of its next-generation microprocessors, known by the codename "Broadwell." Broadwell is basically the same processor as Haswell, which it introduced last year, except it has been shrunk to a 14nm manufacturing process. Haswell was a 22nm part.

That means a little power savings and a slightly cooler chip, and a few power tweaks here and there. This is the "tick" part of Intel's "tick/tock" model where it introduces a new architecture one year, then shrinks that architecture the next year. It has adhered to this methodology for some time now. So Broadwell won't be much different from Haswell, but if it has a lower power draw, that's good for tablets, ultrabooks and 2-in-1s.

Back in October, Intel announced that it would delay mass production of the next-generation code-named “Broadwell” microprocessors by one quarter, from Q4 2013 to Q1 2014. The decision was based on both slowing PC demand and the fact that yields were not acceptable. CPUs are made on a large, dish-shaped wafer and then cut up into individual chips. Yield problems are common when moving to a new process node as the manufacturer works the bugs out.

There's probably a lot of Haswell still out there in storage trays. Gartner recently reported PC sales were off 6.9% for Q4 of 2013 and 10% for all of 2013. Blame has fallen to the popularity of tablets and unpopularity of Windows 8.

Then there's AMD, which plans to release two new Opteron server processors from the "Warsaw" family. The worldwide server market wasn't all that great in 2013, up only 1.5% according to Gartner. The new Opteron 6338P and 6370P chips come with 12 and 16 CPU cores, respectively. AMD has never followed Intel's strategy of threads, preferring cores over threads.

These new processors aren't exactly a quantum leap over the past generation, codenamed "Abu Dhabi." They use the same "Piledriver" core microarchitecture, which is 1.5 years old, rather than the "Steamroller" core in the new "Kaveri" desktops. AMD says they lower the power envelope and offer better performance per watt per dollar than existing products from the same family, but that's about it.

The good news is they are socket- and software-compatible with the existing Opteron 6300 servers out there, so there is no need for a server replacement, you can just upgrade the chips. Intel hasn't been quite as good about upgradeability of older systems as AMD, but then again, Intel also has over 90% of the x86 server market, too.

As for Intel's shuttered fab I mentioned earlier, we saw it coming almost a year ago. With the downturn in PC sales, Intel had more capacity than it needed. Fab 42 had been the subject of some national attention when President Obama visited Arizona and cited it as an example of manufacturing jobs in the U.S.

That said, mothballing a plant is nothing new, nor is it dire for Intel. The building was empty. All Intel had done was put up the walls, ceiling and some internals like wiring and plumbing. It had not spent the hundreds of millions on manufacturing equipment the plant would need. So it sits idle. Micron one left an empty fab sitting idle in Utah for a decade before bringing it online.

Eventually, Fab 42 will be put to work. Old fabs using old process technology will be retired and this new facility will be filled with equipment to make chips. It's just not going to happen tomorrow.

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