The factor factor, part 3

A factor-of-two advantage, even if it's an inherent, persistent advantage, isn't enough to unseat an incumbent solution in the face of even the mildest competitive disadvantage. Part three of three.

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, I claimed that there is apparently a secret rule in the microprocessor industry that determines the success--or failure--of new chip designs.

The failures included RISC processors, media processors, and intelligent RAM chips, which all sank in spite of clearly demonstrable advantages over alternative solutions. The great success is the programmable graphics processing unit (GPU), which has succeeded in spite of the sometimes wrenching shifts in programming methods and PC system architecture that have been required to support it.

So what's the secret? Simply this: a factor-of-two advantage, even if it's an inherent, persistent advantage, isn't enough to unseat an incumbent solution in the face of even the mildest competitive disadvantage. Without a factor of 10--a full order of magnitude--a new product won't even get a foot in the door.

That's why I call this rule the "factor factor." It isn't enough to be a few times faster than the existing alternatives. Given the performance consequences of Moore's Law, it's easier for your potential customers to wait a few years rather than spend a few years adapting to your "issues." You need be much faster than the products you're trying to replace. The target factor is 10--no less.

Sometimes, even a tenfold advantage isn't enough. One order of magnitude is enough to overcome one disadvantage, such as a change of programming methods. Add another simultaneous disadvantage, however, like the serious constraint in local memory capacity imposed by the IRAM concept, and the new technology may need a factor of 100 in performance to win a place in the market.

Overall, a new product must deliver net benefits amounting to as much as a full order of magnitude in cost, performance, or productivity to compensate for each significant disadvantage. That's just what it takes to motivate customers to deal with the problems rather than waiting for Moore's Law to speed up the solutions that are already familiar to them.

The introduction of the AMD64 instruction set by Advanced Micro Devices (also known as EM64T or "Intel 64" on Intel processors, or generically as x86-64) represents the ultimate success case for the factor factor.

Athlon 64 processor
AMD's Athlon 64 debuted the AMD64 instruction-set architecture. Advanced Micro Devices

This isn't immediately clear, I suppose. Adopting the AMD64 standard required a lot of work by operating system vendors and software developers, and the performance benefit was relatively mild in most cases. But still, AMD64 was an immediate success because the performance benefit in certain applications--those that simply wouldn't fit into a 32-bit address space--was practically infinite.

Although the factor factor seems obvious--or at least it should--it's still at the heart of many failed products and hundreds of millions of dollars of wasted investments every year.

In Silicon Valley, like other chip-design centers around the world, projects rarely fail because of poor execution. In most projects, the engineers are good at their jobs, the managers are good at coordinating their work, and the investment is sufficient to get the work done.

Most projects fail at the conceptual level, before the detail design work even begins. The factor factor is only one of many reasons for these failures, of course, but it's the one that disturbs me the most because it's the easiest to anticipate.

This rule doesn't apply to all products. When a new chip for an existing market is architecturally compatible with previous products, a factor-of-two performance improvement is plenty. Even smaller benefits can justify the costs of developing a new product if there are few, if any, disadvantages associated with it.

Multicore CPUs are one of these products, at least for now. Process technology makes it pretty easy to double core counts. Dual-core CPUs were almost a drop-in replacement for single-core chips and caused no serious problems. Quad-core chips were the same thing again. Eight-core CPUs may be a lesson in diminishing returns, but I'm sure they'll be commercially successful.

Beyond that, we'll have to see how it goes. The critical advantage of the CPU over the GPU is high performance on inherently serial processing tasks (what we sometimes call "single-threaded applications"). On a typical PC, there's rarely more than a few of these tasks running at any given moment. It's always useful to have a few extra cores available for parallel tasks, but at some point (I'm thinking somewhere around the 16-core level), PC buyers are likely to stop paying extra for more extra cores.

Even mighty Intel could find itself on the wrong side of the factor factor. Given that quad-core chips became a mainstream product just this year, we can expect to see 16-core processors for ordinary desktop PCs in 2013 and laptops in 2015 or so. By that time, the GPU could be the incumbent solution for high-performance parallel processing, and multicore CPUs could be the technology looking for compelling performance advantages. you know the supposed secret. When you hear about a radical new microprocessor architecture, you can do what I do: imagine the numeral "1" followed by a "0" for each drawback you see in the proposal. Compare that figure with the claimed benefits and you'll know which way to bet.

By the way, kudos to CNET users divisionbyzero and TrinityTrident, who proved my point that this rule isn't really a secret by explaining it on their comments to the previous posts in this three-part series.

Now if someone could only explain why so many companies don't seem to know this rule!

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