Intel meets its match in IBM

With Power7, IBM has served notice on the computing world that Intel isn't the only high-performance microprocessor manufacturer in town.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

There are few, if any, microprocessor manufacturers equal to Intel. IBM, however, is a very large exception.

Power7 wafer: Like Intel, IBM manufactures its own processors, something few 'chipmakers' do these days.
Power7 wafer: Like Intel, IBM manufactures its own processors, something few 'chipmakers' do these days. IBM

By the time Intel had introduced its latest processor for servers, the Itanium 9300, on Monday, IBM had already stolen Intel's thunder with its new Power7 chip technology, announced earlier in the morning.

And rightfully so: the Power7 is impressive. It has eight cores, while Intel's Itanium 9300 (PDF) has four. And each of the Power7's cores is capable of four threads, or tasks, compared to Itanium's two per core.

Although both companies are touting dozens of other features--for example, better thread performance and improved scaling of workloads--IBM is taking a lead in marquee features for the lucrative high-end server market.

"While Intel is talking about a 2x [two-times] performance boost per chip, IBM is talking about almost an 8x [eight-times]," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight64. "IBM has gone from two cores to eight cores per (chip). And each of the cores is roughly twice as fast as the [prior-generation] Power6," according to Brookwood, adding that IBM was already ahead of Intel to begin with.

"Buyers who are sitting on the fence and have an application that could go either way (Itanium or Power7), may find that the Power7 offers a more attractive platform," Brookwood said, acknowledging that Itanium or Intel's upcoming eight-core Nehalem-EX processor would be a good choice for those seeking to use popular applications such as SQL Server that run on Windows and are not supported on the Power7.

IBM Blue Waters supercomputer
Power7 has another leg up on Itanium: it is already being used to construct what may be the fastest supercomputer in the world at the renowned National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, a credible claim, considering the center's history--and IBM's, whose chips in the past have powered the world's fastest supercomputers.

The Blue Waters project supercomputer, housed in a special building on the Urbana-Champaign campus, will theoretically be capable of achieving up to 10 petaflops, about 10 times as fast as the fastest IBM supercomputers today. (A petaflop is 1 quadrillion floating-point operations per second, a key indicator of supercomputer performance.)

One of the novel ways the University of Illinois is able to cram together the thousands of Power7 chips used in the Blue Waters supercomputer is by tapping a novel memory technology called eDRAM, or embedded dynamic access memory, for the level-3 cache memory.

Widely-used "static" RAM memory, or SRAM, is used as the on-chip memory in almost all processors today and can add as much as a billion transistors to high-end processors. IBM wanted to avoid these ballooning--and costly--chip counts, electing to use eDRAM, keeping the total number of transistors to 1.2 billion per processor. (Power7 uses SRAM in the smaller-capacity 32KB level-1 and 256KB level-2 cache; eDRAM is used in the large-capacity 32MB level-3 cache.)

The equivalent number of transistors using traditional SRAM would be well in excess of 2 billion, Bradley McCredie, an IBM fellow in the Systems and Technology Group, said in a CNET interview last year. (Two billion, in fact, is the chip count Intel is citing for the Itanium 9300.)

IBM has stated that the chip's speed--between 3.5GHz and 4GHz--actually has a lower rating than the previous Power6 chip, which ran at 5GHz. "We have gotten performance from other spots, such as the dense eDRAM. We had to back off from the gigahertz in order to get eight of these cores onto the chip and not have it melt," according to McCredie.

Intel, of course, is not standing still. The next-generation Itanium will be made on a cutting-edge 32-nanometer production process, and its upcoming Nehalem-EX server chip may go a long way toward leveling the playing field. But IBM has shown that it has the technological and manufacturing wherewithal to keep Intel on its toes, if not racing to keep up.