What's next for the x86?

The venerable Intel microprocessor architecture is entering its fourth decade. Is it time for a change?

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New developments

Rattner mentions some other "pretty interesting" things being developed in Intel's labs. For example, he says the x86 will include new hardware support for security -- "making it more robust in the face of belligerent attacks" -- but he declines to elaborate.

He also points to the coming x86-based Larrabee chip, a graphics processing unit to compete with the dedicated GPUs from NVIDIA Corp. and the ATI unit of Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Larrabee will contain "an entirely new class of instructions aimed at visual computing," he says. Unlike the highly specialized GPUs of its competitors, he adds, Larrabee is significant because it is an extension of the general-purpose x86 architecture. "Here we are making a strong assertion about the robustness and durability of the architecture, that we can take it into domains that most people felt were beyond its capabilities."

AMD apparently has a similar plan. In January, the company said it would introduce a hybrid CPU-GPU chip called Fusion as an extension of the existing Phenom line of processors. It will ship first in 2009 as a dual-core unit for notebook computers, the company said.

VIA Technologies, which just announced its VIA Nano processors (formerly Isaiah) for the mini-notebook market, says it will continue to target the mobile market with its power-efficient line of x86 processors, but will edge toward the desktop market.

Of the possibility that some brand new microprocessor architecture could come along and blow the x86 out of the water, Rattner says the architecture is still partly protected by that Wintel software inventory that helped save it from the threat posed by RISC processors in the late 1980s. "Unless you can come in and say -- and I think this has been the challenge for [the high-end, non-x86 Intel] Itanium -- that if you use this different instruction set you'll get five times better performance, there just isn't a big enough incentive to switch."

The sky's the limit?

But that's not to say the x86 instruction set won't be implemented in entirely new ways as silicon transistors increasingly bump up against the laws of physics. For 40 years, transistors have been located just under the surface of the silicon wafer. Now, technology is emerging to allow them to be placed on top of that surface.

That would make it possible to build the transistors out of materials other than silicon, materials like gallium arsenide that have better energy and performance characteristics. "We won't be at the surface for another generation or two [about two to four years]," Rattner says, "but the decade ahead will see a lot of innovation in materials."

"There is an inherent limit for the x86 at the low end, for something like your toaster or the fuel injector in your car," says Glenn Henry, president of the Centaur unit of VIA. "And there probably is a limit at the very high end if you are going to do something like simulate atomic bombs. In between, the x86 has proven over and over that it can adapt."

While Intel is working to develop new transistor-based electronics, Rattner says the company is "not more than dabbling" in more far-out possibilities such as processors for quantum and DNA computing. "Those really change the mathematical foundation of computing and are much more risky," he explains. Moreover, he says, they are likely to be restricted to narrow application domains, not to general-purpose computing.

Mowry predicts that a move to those esoteric technologies is 20 years out. "My guess is it won't be until we really start reaching the end of what we can do with conventional technologies that people will get serious about these things," he says. "When you are trying to build wires out of single strands of atoms, things get very strange, and you don't know what to do exactly."

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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