What AMD Taught Me: x86 Everywhere

Back when AMD first announced its intentions to extend the x86 ISA to 64-bits I asked Fred Weber, AMD's old CTO, whether it really made sense to extend x86 or if Intel made the right move with Itanium and its brand new ISA. His response made sense at the time, but I didn't quite understand the magnitude of what he was saying.

Fred said that the overhead of maintaining x86 compatibility was negligible, at the time around 10% of the die was the x86 decoder and that percentage would only shrink over time. We're now at around 8x the transistor count of the K8 processor that Fred was talking about back then and the cost of maintaining x86 backwards compatibility has shrunk to a very small number. But the benefit of backwards compatibility is huge.

These days just about everything is written for x86, everything in the PC space that is. The consumer electronics world isn't quite as blessed. We're starting to see an increasing number of PC applications asked to run on CE devices, things like web browsers, email clients, or simple network media players. Unfortunately, these CE devices don't run x86 platforms thus the manufacturers are either forced to port open source applications to their platform or try to develop something comparable in house.

The problem is that, generally speaking, the best applications currently exist on the PC. The last thing we want is for a company like Sony to enter the web browser market, I'd much rather have Firefox or IE on my internet enabled TV, or on my touch screen in my kitchen. Sure it can be ported to any architecture, but software developers don't exactly like supporting multiple platforms - it takes a lot of time to debug and maintain, and ends up costing a great deal of money.

The concept Fred was trying to get me to understand back in 2002 was this idea of having x86 everywhere. The instruction set didn't matter, what mattered was being able to run the same code on virtually any device. I've always pointed out that Apple must have hated making the iPhone because it became the only computer-like device in its product lineup that didn't run x86. It meant Apple had to maintain a completely separate software stack, specifically for the iPhone.

Fred was right. As computers infiltrate our homes in less conventional ways, being able to run the same applications on all devices will become increasingly more important.

What's ironic is that while Fred Weber first illuminated this issue for me, it would be Intel that was first to act on it.

Intel Aims at the Mainstream A Prelude to Success
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  • FlakeCannon - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    This was an absolutely fantastic article as far as I'm concerned. One of the best I've read from AnandTech. I'm truly impressed with the amount of effort and dedication that the engineers at Intel put into the Atom. Thought the consumer may not see its importance today the Atom will continue to develop one throughout the next 2 years and show why this is such a huge step in the right direction. I really think that this article outlines very well the architecture involved and where it intends to lead Intel and others in the future.

    I'm always impressed to see Intel take architecture that was revolutionary in its time 15 years ago in the Pentium and Pentium Pro and resurrect it in modern day fashion with help of the Dothan Pentium M architecture and even things borrowed from the miserable Netburst technology that 15 years later I believe will once again create a product revolutionary in nature. I was never able to appreciate it in the days of the Pentium but certainly can now.

    This is one product I think is deserving of being excited about.
    Reply
  • fitten - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    What does an on-die memory controller have to do with ILP? Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    Woops, I've clarified the statement :)

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • erwos - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    I was thinking that this would be a fantastic platform for making a small, silent HTPC box for doing streaming media, but the lack of 1080p output kills that to a large extent. I know it's not a big priority for the first revision given the UMPC targeting, but I hope the "Atom 2" does try to squeeze that feature in. Reply
  • FITCamaro - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    It could always be paired with a different, more capable graphics core. Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    It;d be very interesting to see how the 1.86GHz Silverthorne stacks up against a 1.8GHz P4 Northwood, a 1.86GHz Dothan, a 1.8GHz Conroe-L based Celeron, and a 1.8GHz Athlon 64.

    I wonder if Apple is going to refresh AppleTV with Silverthorne since it seems ideal with replace the current 1GHz ULV Dothan in there.
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    Well at least Intel did not name their Atom CPUs the 'Atom Z80' . . . heh.

    Anyways, this is good for our future, as the mITX, and pITX 'systems' now days are still kind of large-ish, and cost quite a bit of money for what they are. Though, I think that putting a web browser on just any old appliance in the house would be way overkill, and possibly a very serious mistake. A TV with a web browser ? An Oven ? Please . . . this is why we have PCs, and micro mobile devices.

    Recently a friend and myself have been working on an embedded project, and I can see the potential here, but a 'problem' does exist. Some of the things you would want to do with such a processor . . . well lets just say there still would not be enough processing power. That being said, I do not see why these could not help make a TVs/HD-DVD player menu operate faster.


    Reply
  • pugster - Thursday, April 03, 2008 - link

    It certainly sounds nice, but the atom processor cost alot because some of the higher end models cost more than $100 each. I find it surprising that their Polosbo chipset is manufactured at 130mm. It probably came from one of their foundries that was due to upgrade to 32mm sometime next year anyways. They could've earily manufactured at 65mm.

    Somehow I don't see their product as mature and maybe the next gen product they would have a cpu and the north/south bridge in the same die.
    Reply
  • lopri - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    I honestly don't get the excitement. Should I? I mean, I wouldn't feel comfortable with one gigantic company controlling every single electronics in our life. If Intel opens up the X86 and everyone can compete on even end, then maybe. Since that won't happen, the future looks scary enough. Reply
  • clnee55 - Wednesday, April 02, 2008 - link

    NO, how can you get excitement. I am already bored with your conspiracy theory. Let's talk about tecnical issue here. Reply

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