What’s Up With Willamette? (Part 1)

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Hillsboro’s Revenge and Intel’s Deliverance

Luckily for Intel, Andy Grove hadn’t put all the eggs in the IA-64 basket. Sometime after Intel’s Oregon based design team delivered the P6 it started work on a new generation x86 core. The project was changed in scope, from the P7’s original mandate of extending x86 to 64-bits, to simply developing a new generation 32-bit x86 core. The project, originally named P67, was officially confirmed and given the public code name Willamette on Intel’s roadmap released in October 1998. It is not clear whether the Willamette was intended to act as Merced’s little brother in the low-end x86 market or was undertaken simply as an insurance policy.

What is clear is that Intel desperately needs Willamette. AMD’s impressive K7 Athlon processor design is clearly more advanced than the aging P6 core. The K7 offers both higher architectural performance per clock cycle and can be clocked at significantly higher frequencies than the P6-based design manufactured in a similar process. AMD is currently poised to release a new generation of 0.18 um based K7 processors at several different price/performance points to simultaneously attack Intel at the high, middle, and low end of the x86 market. This unparalleled competitive pressure comes at a dangerous time given Intel’s well known troubles ramping up the clock rate, yields, and production volumes of its P6-based 0.18 um Coppermine Pentium III, and difficulty in coming up with a widely acceptable successor to the venerable 440BX chipset.

For the last three or four years Intel’s Hillsboro design team has labored nearly invisibly in the shadow of the over-hyped Merced processor. No doubt there is a healthy competition between Intel’s Hillsboro and Santa Clara engineers, and it couldn’t have been much fun to work hard on a project publicly treated as little more than a footnote to the IA-64 effort. But now the tables have turned. Merced gets so little respect it is treated almost as an industry joke, while everyone from PC buyers to Intel share holders impatiently wait for every hint of how Willamette stacks up against AMD’s powerhouse. Now, Intel management publicly downplays Merced (“wait until McKinley!”), while it mounts a full-blown, category five FUD (fear uncertainty and doubt) campaign against AMD and its K7 Athlon. Intel’s widely reported demonstrations of prototype Willamette devices with clock rates up to 1.5GHz is the opening salvo of a tooth and nail struggle for the hearts and minds of customers, trade press and stock analysts. Indeed, Intel’s fortunes over the next two or three years clearly ride heavily on Willamette’s shoulders.

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