The Nehalem Preview: Intel Does It Againby Anand Lal Shimpi on June 5, 2008 12:05 AM EST
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First keep in mind that these performance numbers are early, and they were run on a partly crippled, very early platform. With that preface, the fact that Nehalem is still able to post these 20 - 50% performance gains says only one thing about Intel's tick-tock cadence: they did it.
We've been told to expect a 20 - 30% overall advantage over Penryn and it looks like Intel is on track to delivering just that in Q4. At 2.66GHz, Nehalem is already faster than the fastest 3.2GHz Penryns on the market today. At 3.2GHz, I'd feel comfortable calling it baby Skulltrail in all but the most heavily threaded benchmarks. This thing is fast and this is on a very early platform, keep in mind that Nehalem doesn't launch until Q4 of this year.
One valid concern is with regards to performance in applications that don't scale well beyond two or four cores, what will Nehalem offer us then? Our DivX test doesn't scale well beyond four cores and even then Nehalem's performance was in the 20 - 30% faster range that we've been expecting. The other thing to keep in mind is that none of these tests are really stressing Nehalem's integrated memory controller. When AMD made the move to an IMC, we saw an instant 20% performance boost in most applications. I suspect that the applications that don't benefit from Hyper Threading, will at least benefit from the IMC. We've only scratched the surface of Nehalem here, looking at the benefits of Hyper Threading and its lower latency unaligned cache accesses. We've hinted at what's to come with the extremely well balanced and low latency memory hierarchy of Intel's new baby. Once this thing gets closer to launch, we should be able to fill in the rest of the puzzle.
Over six years ago I had dinner with Intel's Pat Gelsinger (back when he was Intel's CTO), and I asked him the same question I always do: "what are you excited about?" Back then his response was "threading", Intel was about to launch Hyper Threading and Pat was convinced that it was absolutely necessary for the future of microprocessors.
It was at the same dinner that Pat mentioned Intel may do a chip with an integrated memory controller much like AMD, but that an IMC wouldn't solve the problem of idle execution units - only indirectly mitigate it. With Nehalem, Intel managed to combine both - and it only took 6 years to pull it off.
Pat also brought up another very good point at that dinner. He turned to me and said that you can only integrate a memory controller once, what do you do next to improve performance? Intel has managed to keep increasing performance, but what I really want to see is what happens at the next tock. Intel proved its ability with Conroe and with Nehalem it shows that the tick-tock model can work, but more than anything looking at Nehalem today makes me excited at what Sandy Bridge will bring.
The fact that we're able to see these sorts of performance improvements despite being faced with a dormant AMD says a lot. In many ways Intel is doing more to improve performance today than when AMD was on top during the Pentium 4 days.
AMD never really caught up to the performance of Conroe, through some aggressive pricing we got competition in the low end but it could never touch the upper echelon of Core 2 performance. With Penryn, Intel widened the gap. And now with Nehalem it's going to be even tougher to envision a competitive high-end AMD CPU at the end of this year. 2009 should hold a new architecture for AMD, which is the only thing that could possibly come close to achieving competition here. It's months before Nehalem's launch and there's already no equal in sight, it will take far more than Phenom to make this thing sweat.