Intel In Flux: Are We Heading To A Socket-Less Future? (Part 1)

1/27/2013 9:27:41 AM

We examine the changes that might herald a new Intel - one that’s not as enthusiast-friendly as we’ve become accustomed to

Intel has ruled the roost in computing silicon since the early eighties, and capitalising on its x86 architecture (together with partners like Microsoft) it has built a massive technology empire. Nothing lasts forever, though, and with an ever-changing technological topology shifting beneath its very feet, is Intel planning to do something drastic for the longer term viability of the company?

These Intel Roadmaps suggest that Haswell will be the last of the desktop processors to be available in a socket, but is that true?

These Intel Roadmaps suggest that Haswell will be the last of the desktop processors to be available in a socket, but is that true?

A Changing World

Most people have grown up with Intel powering the world’s computers. ‘Intel Inside’ has become an assumption most people make upon seeing a system because, apart from some very odd times in the past 30 or so years, Intel always made the best desktop PC processors. What’s more, it has largely dominated the mobile computing space too, until recent times and the growth of ARM in the tablet and smartphone markets.

That’s not to deride AMD’s attempts to challenge it for desktop supremacy, and that company’s undoubted influence on the technology we have now. The thing is, at no point did it ever look like Intel would take the runners-up medal in the race to be the biggest chip maker in desktop computers, and AMD has never managed to show it a clean pair of heels.

What’s fascinating about Intel is that it built a simple but effective chip selling business and, off the back of the success of the IBM PC, rode it to billions of chip sales and many more billions in yearly profits. Unfortunately, having all-but neutralized AMD, it then sat back to enjoy a few decades of ‘business as usual’, and somewhat failed to notice how the landscape of consumer computing was subtly changing.

LGA 2011 has a horribly complicated socket. Perhaps Intel isn’t being daft in trying to do away with all these potential points of failure

LGA 2011 has a horribly complicated socket. Perhaps Intel isn’t being daft in trying to do away with all these potential points of failure

Intel has had a few diversions away from the venerable x86 format, most notably The Disaster That Shall Not Be Discussed (aka Itanium) and a low power offering in the form of the Atom. The problem is, the Itanium has become a technological funeral pyre on which HP is slowly being roasted, while the Atom didn’t exactly set anyone’s world alight. It turns out, though, while the Atom was wrong product, it moved the company in the right direction - because the (then) unseen assassin that was ready to strike from the shadows was the company formerly known as Advanced RISC Machines (now ARM to its friends, and its enemies), and its amazing low power devices.

The launch of the Apple iPhone back in 2007 started a chain of events that Intel never anticipated, and propelled ARM from being a company that historically came from Acorn and the BBC Micro to challenge Intel’s domination of the world processor market.

“If it is true, then this is the most radical change of direction that Intel has ever made, though that might also reflect the seriousness with which the decline of the desktop market is viewed internally”

It’s not that ARM itself makes all the chips that go in phones, tablets, cameras, NAS boxes and Raspberry PI’s, it actually licenses its tech to a variety of companies that make their own flavours of its special sauce. It’s proving to be a very profitable recipe, that’s for sure.

In contrast, it’s taken Intel five years to enter the smartphone market. The distance between it and ARM was then put in sharp relief when press releases with headlines like ‘Intel Cracks Smartphone Apps Processor Market’ heralded it’s capturing of a record 0.2% share of that market in 2012 (after delivering precisely 0% in 2011. ‘Scuffs’ is probably a better word than ‘Cracks’ to describe its success in this sector so far. By its own standards, its a long way from domination, and it has also failed to make much of a dent on the tablet market either, which is again entirely dominated by ARM-derived products.

With the momentum moving away from the company, it’s not surprising that it’s making plans to wrestle back the initative.

2013, And All Haswell

Roadmaps are a tasty source of information, if you’re adept at reading between the press releases and filling in the obvious omissions yourself. A fine example of the Intel’s approach to such activities, is its Desktop Platform Roadmap, covering the period Q1 2012 to 1H 2013.

It covers the last of the Sandy Bridge generation, and the continuation of the Ivy Bridge range we’re currently enjoying, before priming us for the introduction - sometime between March and June of next year - of it’s next step forward: ‘Haswell’. Eagled-eyed readers of the map quickly noticed that, while Ivy Bridge covers LGA 1155 and Sandy Bridge-E takes the LGA 2011 high ground, Haswell is to be given a whole new Socket (1150). Quite why it needs to dispense with five pins isn’t obvious, but on the surface it could be said to adhere to Intel’s modus opperandi of changing sockets on a regular basis to keep motherboard manufacturers in business.

This is the machine you need to either install or remove a BGA packaged CPU, which most people don’t own

This is the machine you need to either install or remove a BGA packaged CPU, which most people don’t own

This raised few eyebrows, but more speculation spawned from the release of a Japanese chart showing that Haswell itself will be followed by a new chip ‘Broadwell’ in 2014 (reportedly on an amazing new 14nm fabrication). What socket will Broadwell be on? Well the chart says ‘SoC’, which means ‘System on a chip’, which infers that this CPU won’t be on a socket because it carries many of the support chips with it and can be surface-mounted to a motherboard. The technical term for this is a ball grid array (BGA), and that’s the same technology that Intel has used with the Atom, which isn’t replaceable by a user.

If true, then Haswell’s legacy could be to represent the very last socketed desktop processor produced by Intel. Beyond that line, you could well be buying an entirely new motherboard in order to upgrade the processing power of a system.

The general plan with Broadwell is that the chip will carry the CPU, GPU and integrated memory controller (as with current designs) and that it will be coupled with a Wildcat Point input/output controller. That chip will be created with various power envelopes for mobile and desktop use, and it will dictate what the Broadwell chip is capable of doing in terms of clock speed and turbo mode.

If this really is the intention then it represents the commoditisation of the PC into an appliance, and potentially the end of enthusiast -built and tweaked systems entirely.

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