It may not have been as dramatic as Saul's Road to Damascus conversion, but getting hit upside the head by rival Advanced Micro Devices the past two years must have helped Intel see the light, and now Intel has belatedly become a full convert to the religion of energy efficiency."Energy-efficient performance" is the theme for the Fall Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco this week. But Pat Gelsinger, senior VP and general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group and who for years led much of the company's R&D efforts, admits the full corporate transformation to efficiency discipleship was slow to materialize.
It was about five years ago at IDF that Intel and Gelsinger, as its chief futurist, was projecting that the company would be offering 10 GHz processors by the end of the decade. Gelsinger today says Intel could have "easily blown through" the 5 GHz barrier with no problem and probably could be offering processors running at 7 to 8 GHz clock speeds today had power efficiency not been an issue.
"We got trapped by our own success and stayed on that megahertz and gigahertz road map for one or two product generations too long," Gelsinger says. "There was a big internal battle."
The actual road to performance gains for the rest of this decade, and likely well beyond, will come through low-power multicore processors. Gelsinger says that path started to become clear to Intel with the success of its low-voltage and highly successful Centrino mobile platform. Intel now finds itself in the forefront of the multicore evolution and will be the first to market with a quad-core x86 processor.
Gelsinger says "it's crap" to say that Intel's current affection for efficiency was forced upon it by the introduction of higher-efficiency processors by AMD over the past few years. Processors generally have a four-year design cycle, and design work on the new and much more efficient processors that Intel has introduced over the past summer began in 2002. But even dating back to 2001, Intel certainly shouldn't have been blind to what AMD was trying to accomplish.
Martin Reynolds, an analyst with Gartner, says for the past decade or more, Intel has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to introduce processors and then improve their efficiency to industry-best levels within a year. At least that paradigm was true until the past two years, when AMD seized the momentum.
AMD hasn't been shy about beating the efficiency drum for the past two years. The performance-per-watt advantage of its Opteron processors for servers has held such an advantage over Xeon for the past couple of years that it didn't take a marketing genius to see where the company should hitch its PR wagon. AMD has made it clear that it believes it should be considered the energy efficiency champion, as evidenced by efforts such as The Green Grid consortium to improve power usage in the data center. After a long nap, it appears Intel can now smell the coffee as well.
Reynolds says, "No data center manager has ever gotten fired for having too big of an electricity bill." Instead, problems arise for the data center manager when he or she fails to deliver the technology that enables the business to meet its objective, which includes making sure performance capacity increases can be readily met, and there lies the efficiency rub.
The executive ranks of Intel may have once been divided, but today they're all solidly behind the energy efficiency banner. From president and chief executive Paul Otellini to chief technology officer Justin Rattner to Gelsinger, all the Intel executive choir is now singing from the same page.