Thursday, November 18, 2010

The age of "good enough" computing

In the last few years, consumers have been very clear in showing that they care about better CPU performance only in so much as it enables new features they care about.  Hennessy agrees (yes, the Hennessy), claiming that one of the big demands for CPU performance now comes from "the Googles of the world", meaning people want more products and features from cloud computing.  The other big demand for CPU performance comes from users that want a better user interface - and a failure to innovate on the user-interface side of things has resulted in a lack of demand for CPU performance.

AMD would agree, and they have taken on the corollary that people want the qualitatively best user experience available today at the lowest power (i.e. best battery life) and lowest cost possible.  Enter AMD's hybrid CPU/GPU processors, called accelerated processing units (APU) that deliver the best graphical experiences possible within 9w (Ontario) and 18w (Zacate) for netbooks and laptops respectively.  AMD has given up chasing Intel's single-threaded performance, which, as long as Moore's law continues and Intel maintains a process technology lead, will arguably never be beaten again.

"Good enough" can also be applied to operating systems, and the strong user base of Microsoft's 9-year-old OS is evidence that WindowsXP was indeed good enough.  I remember when Bill Gates told me and a small crowd of interns that Microsoft's biggest competitor is free software.  Not open source software or Linux, but free software of the type that users have already bought from Microsoft and is now free to operate for all time.  So originally it was not free, but it doesn't bring any money into Microsoft and Microsoft must compete against it to produce more sales.  That means Bill thought that Microsoft had been fighting "good enough" for quite some time, and foretold of the longevity of their greatest OS.

An interesting side-effect of x86 processor's progression toward multi-core is that it is now possible for an outsider to throw away multicore processing in favor of one really fast core.  It is interesting to think of what might have been, or what could still be, if the design decisions that resulted in the 3.8ghz Pentium 4 were put into action today, at 22nm, four process technologies beyond the highest clock speed processor ever released by Intel. Although it wouldn't deliver 16x the performance, it would still run at 7ghz+ with 24MB+ of cache and would beat today's 3.3ghz processors at single-threaded applications (i.e. almost every desktop application) by a good margin.  But that processor would consume 130 watts, which is not "good enough" for the mobile computing users are trending towards today.  Nor is it good enough for cloud computing, which requires thousands of cores to execute its parallel applications.

No comments:

Post a Comment