About Old Chestnuts and New Challenges

Andreas Stiller

(Translation of the German original in c't by Marcel Sieslack)

Intel invests heavily in Europe, AMD faces mounting problems, the entire industry pins its hope on Windows 8 and Apple promises the workstation community something really big – for later.

It's a pity, the Higgs boson has (probably) been found and the neutrinos are moving as they are supposed to. So, as for physics, everything continues in the same old way. It's a different story with chip production though, where supposed physical boundaries are crossed again and again, especially in the field of lithography. Intel plans to create structures of down to 15 nm with crude 193-nm laser light and numerous magic tricks. Still, eventually the transition to EUV will become necessary if the ambitious roadmap goals are to be met. And the suppliers will have to keep pace. In order to ensure that the most important partner, the Dutch company ASML, makes good progress concerning the challenges posed by EUV and large wafers with a diameter of 450 nm, Intel has bought 10 percent of it for 2.1 billion dollars. Additionally, Intel has contributed 1 billion dollars to a joint R&D program and intends to acquire another 5 percent of the company's stock at a later date. In total, ASML wants to sell a quarter of its stock to customers. After the great downturn in 2009, when nobody invested, ASML recovered quickly, achieving sales of 5.6 billion euros and a profit of 1.5 billion in the past year. That's more than the Japanese competitors Canon and Nikon reach together.

Through these heavy investments in Europe, and the decision to build its next big chip factory in Ireland, Intel surely raises its popularity with the European Commission, which, following the hearing at the start of July, now has to decide if the fine of 1.06 billion euros for anti-competitive practices will be upheld in full. Intel's chances that the fine will at least be reduced aren't bad.

Also Google currently is at loggerheads with the EU but has now decided to seek an amicable solution and has offered to adjust its practices regarding the online search. And the company is also trying to calm things down at home. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have agreed on a fine of 22.5 million dollars for "disguised" cookies in Safari. That's not much when compared to the 500 million dollars Google had to pay to the Justice Department last year, but it's still the highest fine the FTC has ever imposed on a single company.

Firmware TPM

Data protection is a tricky topic. Back in the 90s, we had the uproar because of the processor serial numbers. In contrast, serial numbers and trusted platform modules (TPM) will soon be a standard in many upcoming smartphones and tablets, and few seem troubled. At least, that's what Microsoft demands for Windows 8 tablets with Connected Standby, which most likely brought AMD to license ARM's TrustZone technology; in mobile devices, a separate TPM chip (like Infineon's SLB 9635) is rather cumbersome, the level of integration is desired to be as high as possible. That's why the specification TPM 2.0 (alias TPM.next), expected by the Trusted Computing Group (TCG) and pushed on by Microsoft, anticipates implementations in which the firmware and certain hardware units of systems-on-chip cooperate. With ARM, that's TrustZone.

Intel is already equipping some of the Atoms of the Z line with the "Smart & Secure Technology" (S&ST). For instance, that's the case with the smartphone Atom Z2460 – in the UK and France, the accordingly equipped Android device from Orange is available by now – and probably also with the Z2760, Clover Trail, which is designed for Windows 8 tablets with Connected Standby and therefore also uses LPDDR3 SDRAM, to allow for long standby times.

What's disquieting about Intel's Smart & Secure Technology is the lack of official documentation. Until now, Intel has only disclosed that some cryptosystems are supported – AES, 3DES, RSA, the usual suspects – and that a secure element is involved. The latter can also be used for contact-free payment via NFC and Intel is cooperating with the smartcard specialists from Giesecke & Devrient in this context. ARM, in contrast, provides an extensive documentation for TrustZone, even if a manual on how to achieve a TPM 2.0 with it is still missing. Surely AMD is working hard on it. After all, the company intends to sell more tablet chips in 2013, a Bobcat SoC with USB 3.0 had originally been scheduled for this year already (Krishna).

And the PC market needs Windows 8, otherwise the entire industry will be facing difficult times. According to figures from Context, sales declined almost 17 percent in Europe in April and March. AMD was hit especially hard and had to cut its sales forecast by 11 percent.

No iNUMA

While Apple is the technological leader in many fields, the company's workstations are a real disappointment. The new Mac Pros neither have Xeon-E5 processors nor up-to-date graphic cards: no PCIe 3.0, no DDR3-1600, no USB 3.0 or even Thunderbolt. Something hidden under the hood? No, even under Lion (Darwin 11.4.0), the Pros still don't profit from a state-of-the-art memory management with NUMA. Ironically, on its website, under "Up to 12 cores of raw power", Apple presents the STREAM benchmark that would give this away – but Apple doesn't indicate the absolute values, which would be normal practice, but only a factor relative to the predecessor. With Intel's Composer 11 for Mac OS, the one that, for instance, Mathematica uses, we have measured 27.8 GB/s. A comparable Fujitsu system manages about 37 GB/s with the same Xeon-E5645 processors, thanks to NUMA – under Windows and Linux. And using Bootcamp to switch to Windows doesn't help either, the Mac Pros are "hard" configured for non-NUMA (with cacheline interleave), unless someone finds an EFI hack.

However, Apple is always good for a surprise. At the developer summit, Tim Cook consoled the disappointed Mac Pro community with "don't worry" and announced "something really great" for next year – maybe something with Intel's Xeon Phi or Nvidia Kepler? After all, the GPU interface OpenCL came from Apple and is integrated into Mac OS.

Current rating: 5