Looking Forward to 2002

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A Quick Look Back

In the last six months several noteworthy events and disclosures have occurred in the fast moving world of microprocessors. AMD started shipping its Palomino K7 processor as the Athlon XP. Despite the controversy surrounding the performance rating based model naming scheme associated with the XP, it appears the latest refinement of the AMD’s venerable K7 design has, by most measures relevant to the PC world, eclipsed the performance of the 2 GHz Pentium 4 (P4), the highest speed grade offered for Intel’s first implementation of its new x86 microarchitecture. However, this advantage should prove short-lived, as the second generation 0.13 um Northwood P4 will be officially released in early January. The Northwood will offer higher clock rates, an L2 cache doubled in size, and minor internal performance enhancements.

Extending their rivalry on a different front, Intel and AMD unveiled microarchitectural details of their forthcoming 64-bit standard bearers at Microprocessor Forum in October. Although the McKinley and Hammer are both future flagship parts, and thus important symbols of Intel and AMD struggle for technological leadership, the two processor families will be sold into different markets and won’t directly compete. In other 64-bit news, IBM officially unveiled the POWER4 processor in several different hardware configurations with clock rates as high as 1.3 GHz and took the top spot in both the integer and floating point performance categories of the SPEC CPU 2000 benchmark. However, preliminary “teaser” numbers from Compaq suggest that IBM will lose SPEC performance leadership when the EV7, the final major product introduction in the doomed Alpha line, is unveiled. Regardless of who wins bragging rights for technical computing, both processors will offer memory and I/O bandwidth far ahead of their competitors and both should do quite well on commercial workloads.

Sun Microsystems continues to slowly upgrade its UltraSPARC-III line in the face of an increasingly difficult competitive environment. Sun recently introduced its copper process based version of the US-III at 900 MHz. The latest device ostensibly includes a fix to the prefetch buffer bug that vexed the earlier aluminum based device. Far more interesting than the new silicon was the latest version of Sun’s compiler. It raised the new copper US-III/900’s SPECfp2k score by roughly 20% by spectacularly accelerating one of the 14 programs in the suite using an undisclosed optimization. A recent call was issued for new programs for the next generation of the SPEC CPU benchmark. Tentatively named SPEC 2004, it now seems like it couldn’t come soon enough.

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