A Prelude to Success

This all started back in 2004, in Austin, Texas. Despite the location, I am talking about Intel and not AMD. In 2004, Intel's Austin Design Center was hard at work on another member of the Pentium 4 processor family - codenamed Tejas.

Tejas was scheduled to arrive after Prescott and continue the NetBurst lineage, but as history would have it, Tejas never saw the light of day. The project was canceled and Intel's corporate attention was instead shifted to taking the Pentium M architecture and improving it to be desktop-worthy.

The Tejas team was, as you'd expect, not particularly pleased with their project being canceled. But, as seems to be the case with Intel's best engineers and canceled projects, they channeled their disappointment into passion and excitement for their next design.

I should stop the story here and point out the striking similarity to another Intel success story, that of the original Centrino. Banias was the first Centrino processor, later named the Pentium M. The team that worked on Banias was the same team that worked on Timna, yet another project cancelled very late in the process. After Timna was cancelled the team, working out of Intel's Israel Design Center, went into a brief collective depression for about a month before receiving instructions to work on Banias. Instead of producing something mediocre, the team felt a need to prove something to those who cancelled their beloved Timna project. The result was Banias, which became the Pentium M, led to the Core Duo and eventually gave us the Core 2 family of processors that we love so dearly today.

Back to Austin. We've got a very small team of people who were hard at work on Tejas and now without anything to do. The same sense of proving their worth brew and in 2004 the team received new orders.

The task was to develop a low power, IA (Intel Architecture, read: x86) core for use in a many-core CPU design. Since this core would be used in a many-core CPU, it would have to be very, very low power (you can't have 10s of cores each consuming 100W).


Many-core CPU designs are in Intel's future, Atom has its roots in the many-core initiative 

I asked the design team in Austin if this was a dirty joke played on them by upper management - going from a very power hungry design like Tejas to something that would consume a couple of watts. Apparently during Tejas' design, a smaller team in Austin was doing some pathfinding work, looking at very low power simple cores. Since they spent about a year doing this pathfinding work, the transition from Tejas to something very low power was natural despite what it may seem from the outside.

Many of the architects that would work on this new, low power core actually came from other microprocessor companies. Belli Kuttanna, the chief architect on the core, worked for Sun on SPARC processors as well as Motorola designing elements of PowerPC cores. Belli worked with others from Sun and Motorola, but now all under the Intel umbrella. One of the members of the validation team working on the core was also a former AMDer.

Early 2004 was the inception of the pathfinding effort to investigate what would be necessary to develop this new low power core. The codename for this core was Bonnell, which as I've mentioned before is the tallest mountain in Austin, measuring only 750 ft. The petite mountain was a perfect fit for this new, small core (engineers aren't the most creative with naming ;)).

The first step in the pathfinding effort was to find out if Bonnell could be based on an existing Intel microarchitecture. The small team looked at reusing the Pentium M or the yet-to-be-released Core 2 and some analysis was done on both of these options. It didn't take long to come to the conclusion that it wasn't possible to hit the power and performance targets using an existing design. As Intel discovered with Centrino, in order to target a new market it would need to use a new microprocessor design.

The team went back to a clean sheet of paper and started with the simplest of microprocessor architectures, a single-issue, in-order core and built up from there. The designers kept iterating until the performance and power targets at that time were met. You have to keep in mind that in 2004, even Intel didn't have a good idea of exactly where this core would be used. Imagine going back to 2004 and being expected to design the microprocessor architecture that could eventually be used in something like a third generation iPhone - it's borderline impossible.

By the end of 2004, Paul Otellini gave the Austin team specific direction that the Bonnell core would be used in a standalone CPU - not as a part of a many-core design effort. This CPU would be used in UMPCs (Ultra Mobile PCs) and an even more unheard of creation called a MID (Mobile Internet Device). The many-core designs are still under development and I suspect that the first one we'll see come to fruition is a little gem called Larrabee.

Bonnell was just a core, but when combined with a L2 cache and an external bus interface it became the CPU known internally as Silverthorne. More recently, Intel gave Silverthorne a proper name and called it the Atom processor.

What AMD Taught Me: x86 Everywhere Atom at a Glance
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  • AssBall - Thursday, April 03, 2008 - link

    I was a little surprised at first but when I got thinking... I don't really know if my P35 northbridge is even a 90nm chip.

    - Why would Intel not want to use its old rock solid 130 process that it spent a ton of money on to build simpler parts than it was designed for. As long as their materials and equipment are working fine for a cheap enough 130 part and there is no dire market for lower power chipsets that fit in an ATX standard...

    - Intel's most recent strategy has been to design and manufacture their latest designs on solid existing tech before they shrink it.

    I'm also fairly certain that if this little CPU takes off they will have the 90-65 version of it with some simple refinements out in two shakes of a lamb's tail. I'm really surprised myself that they set it up with ddr2 support... but again its so cheap now, why not?
    Reply
  • rmlarsen - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    It is articles like this that make me come back to Anandtech. Well written and researched and with the right level of detail. Keep up the good work!
    Reply
  • Woodchuck2000 - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    One of the best I've seen on Anandtech for quite a while. I've been following this one quite closely and it's great to have such a detailed exposition all in one place.

    Do we have any news on the availability of this as a desktop part? I've been looking to construct an always-on server sitting in a cupboard somewhere, just to act as a file/print server and to do a little light database/web hosting for testing and developement. A 1.6GHz Atom would easily provide enough horsepower to accomplish that and with a notebook HDD, the whole thing should stay well under 10W load power consumption!

    I saw a photo of Silverthorne + Poulsbo on an Intel reference board built to a Mini-ITX form factor but couldn't find any details on whether they were planning to release it to the general public...

    Also any news on when we might expect benchmarks?

    Keep up the good work!
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    You could probably do this now with the VIA pico ITX reference board.

    http://www.logicsupply.com/products/px10000g?refer...">http://www.logicsupply.com/products/px1...=&gc...

    Sorry for the long link . . . but I think power usage is somewhere around ~12W.
    Reply
  • AnnonymousCoward - Friday, April 04, 2008 - link

    Try tinyurl.com

    Thanks for such a high quality article, Anand!
    Reply
  • tfranzese - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    "These days, Intel manufacturers millions of Core 2 Duo processors each made up of 410 million transistors (over 130 times the transistor count of the original Pentium) in an area around 1/3 the size."

    ...is incorrect. You could nearly fit six Core 2 Duos at 45nm in the same area that the original Pentium occupied or even more impressive, four of them on the die of the original Pentium 4 with room to spare.
    Reply
  • tfranzese - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    I'm the one with fuzzy logic today and misinterpreted :) Reply
  • Magnus Dredd - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    It is completely true that there are benefits to having a single platform to support. However, the article is completely off the mark about where the benefits are most realized.

    It's not the HARDWARE.

    It's the API.

    It's all about the API. Unless you're writing drivers or an OS you're not writing to the hardware, with VERY few exceptions. The exceptions to this are for optimizations for seriously intense code like Photoshop filters and video game engines, where 90% or more of the code is to the API. So basically one way or another you're writing to an API. That's Application Programming Interface.

    Since it was mentioned in the article...

    If I'm writing a program that's supposed to run on OSX, the newest version supports TWO hardware platforms (PPC and x86, and not just x86 as the article claimed), and I want to create a "window" using the built in API (named Cocoa) I use the command NSWindow.
    http://developer.apple.com/documentation/Cocoa/Ref...">http://developer.apple.com/documentatio...SWindow_...
    It makes no difference when writing the program whether it's a PPC or Intel based machine that it will be running on with the single exception that in a few places you have to use a small bit of code to make sure that the program uses the byte order appropriate to the processor.

    While I have yet to read info on it, I'd bet that NSWindow is also used by the iPhone which uses a MIPS cpu (yet a third architecture).

    I've written code in ANSI C for Linux that runs without making any changes on PPC, x86(32 bit and 64 bit), and Sparc. If I wanted to go to the trouble I could also compile it on my MIPS based SGI, a Motorola 68000 series Mac, and a HP PA-RISC (if I can ever figure out how to get the damned thing running). That's because nearly all modern applications are compiled.
    ---
    Now if by PC, Anand meant Windows, we're talking a different story, but one with similar flaws.

    So I'm writing an application for Windows and I want to create a "window". I use the win32 command CreateWindow.
    http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms632679(...">http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms632679(...

    So lets just say that I want it to run on an Itanium under Windows... I use the win32 command CreateWindow.

    So let's just say that I want to make it run on a WindowsCE based set-top box or internet tablet powered by a MIPS CPU...
    I use the win32 command CreateWindow.
    http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms908192....">http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms908192....
    Quoting Wikipedia: "It is supported on Intel x86 and compatibles, MIPS, ARM, and Hitachi SuperH processors."
    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Windows_...">http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Windows_...
    ---
    I'm actually somewhat saddened to write this post, mostly due to the the amount of respect I have for Anand and many of the great articles he's written over the years. However, I suppose that it goes that way sometimes.

    I just want to make sure that people aren't misled about what makes it hard to port/move a program to another platform like a phone or a BlueRay player. And it's sure as hell not the CPU's instruction set. The CPU may not be fast enough or it's that programs are written for these APIs that may or may not support the hardware. And the fault for this lies with Microsoft, or Apple, or the GTK guys, or Trolltech, or whomever the API belongs to.

    Also simply dropping an x86 CPU into a machine does not mean that it can run Windows. With the sales of XP to cease, your only option for the new batch of supercheap x86 laptops like the ASUS EEE, or the cloudbook may be Linux, regardless of the fact that it's x86 based.

    The bottom line is, if Microsoft doesn't care about your platform, they won't support it and you won't be able to get it with Windows regardless of what the CPU is.

    While I do personally agree that x86 moving "downwards" is a great thing. I just see it taking over for completely different reasons, like Intel's manufacturing prowess.
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    Windows XP Embedded, and the compact .NET framework while you're talking about 'APIs', and platforms. XPe, and Win2003 Embedded are not going away any time soon, and basically have barely been available on a non beta basis. Although CE Builder could probably do the same thing, and as a matter of a fact I've seen some fairly nifty things done with it(eg: a boot-able image that fits on a floppy with all the functionality of your standard NAS, including User Groups and permission policies).

    While sometimes having an OS on an Embedded device may be a hindrance, there are times it can be quite handy. Bank KIOSKs, and Cash registers are only two such examples, and I have worked on/with both that use WinXPe.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    Agreed - the API also plays a large part, but for a company like Apple the pain of maintaining both PPC and x86 codepaths is significant. Perhaps the Firefox reference wasn't the best one, especially as I really see the strengths here for software companies like Apple (not to mention what other conventional hardware companies may start looking more like software companies as their devices get more complex).

    I think you've also hit on a major issue going forward: Microsoft is going to have to focus on these not-PCs a lot more seriously in the future. Instead of trying to scale Windows down, it needs a MCE-esque approach to these "fast enough" devices. Apple made the right first step with the iPhone OS, Microsoft can't stand by idle for too long without a good alternative. And MS does love x86... :)

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply

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