The sense of relief on the faces of hardware developers, analysts and Intel employees was the lasting image of last week's Spring Intel Developer Forum (IDF).
Last year, Intel's road map was in disarray. In February of 2004, Intel's chief server processor executive sheepishly announced the company's first server processor with 64-bit extensions to the x86 instruction set, almost a year after its rival Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) had launched such a product. By September, the company had ripped up its existing road maps and revealed its plans to accelerate the production of dual-core processors, minus the details of what direction it had in mind for those dual-core chips. It was also just starting to articulate a vision for the "platformization" of the company, which even some Intel spokespeople agreed was a poorly understood term.
But it all came together last week over three days of presentations, keynotes and briefings for the thousands of attendees looking for direction. Intel's products through the first half of 2006 are public knowledge, evidence that the company is finally secure in its dual-core designs and platform plans, according to many analysts interviewed at the conference.
As long as Intel followed through and released the chips without incident, the situation at the world's largest chipmaker appears to have stabilised, they said.
"Intel's IDF marked a continued rise in strategic confidence bolstered by a deep commitment to multicore CPUs [central processing units], plus a rebalancing of the competitive environment versus AMD," said Ben Lynch, a financial analyst with Deutsche Bank Equity Research, in a research note. In 2004, it looked like AMD would be first on the block with a dual-core x86 processor, but its public road map says that its first dual-core Opteron server processor will not be available until the second half of 2005.
Starting in the second quarter, Intel will enter its dual-core era with the Pentium D processor and the Pentium Extreme Edition 840 processor. Later in the year, the dual-core Montecito Itanium 2 processor will make its debut, followed in the first quarter of 2006 by the dual-core Yonah mobile processor and dual-core Dempsey server processor.
The Pentium D processor uses two of the current Pentium 4 processor cores integrated into a single package with a dedicated cache memory bank for each core. The Pentium Extreme Edition 840 processor will also be released in the second quarter.
It was very similar to the Pentium D processor, but came with Intel's hyperthreading technology to let each core process two software threads at the same time, vice-president and general manager of Intel's Desktop Platforms Group, Stephen Smith, said.
One of the main reasons behind moving to dual-core designs was to save power while increasing performance. A chip with two cores could run at slower clock speeds than a single-core chip with better performance.
But Intel's Pentium D processor probably wouldn't run much slower than its current single-core Pentium 4 processors, edito-r in-chief of the Microprocessor Report, Kevin Krewell, said.
Intel showed several demonstrations of the chip running at 3.2GHz, the likely launch target given the widespread use of chips at that speed in demonstration PCs, he said.
Intel's fastest Pentium 4 processors currently run at 3.8GHz.
The Pentium D comes with power-saving technology that cuts core frequency in between application workloads. However, because a chip's clock speed must be linked to the speed of its front-side bus, the Pentium D cores would be unable to run slower than 2.8GHz, senior processor applications engineer at Intel, Benson Inkley, said.
Yonah, first announced at last September's IDF, is more tightly integrated than the Pentium D processor, according to vice-president of the Mobile Platforms Group, Mooly Eden.
As with its Pentium M predecessors, Yonah was designed to minimise power consumption, and the cores had to work together in order to determine the best levels of power consumption based on a given application, he said.
Since the last IDF, Intel has also done a much better job explaining its new platform strategy. In fact, "platform" appeared to be the third word out of every executive's mouth at this IDF. To Intel, a platform is a combination of chips, chipsets and other features that are designed to work together to enhance performance.
This was first expressed in the company's Centrino platform, which combined the Pentium M processor, a mobile chipset and a 802.11 wireless chip. Similar platforms are under development for home entertainment, corporate desktops and low-end servers.
Despite the warm and fuzzy rhetoric echoing throughout the Moscone Center this week, several challenges remain before Intel proves that it has learned its lessons from 2004. The company is in the midst of one of the most sweeping reorganisations in its history, and many executives and employees are learning new roles on the fly.
Chief executive officer (CEO), Craig Barrett, is moving up to the chairman's role in May, with current president and chief operating officer (COO) Paul Otellini assuming Barrett's CEO role. Otellini will operate without a COO in the near future, making him responsible for both day-to-day operations and the more sweeping strategic decisions made by the CEO.
Intel is also planning to make the jump to a new generation of processing technology this year. Yonah will be the first product released on its 65-nanometer processing technology, which shrinks the average size of features on the chip down to 65nm from the 90nm processing technology currently in use.
Any time a chip maker switches to a new processing technology, the potential for manufacturing problems increases, but the number of 65nm demonstrations shown was evidence that Intel was very confident about its new manufacturing technology, Krewell said.