Intel’s best and worst

by Robin Harris on Tuesday, 22 May, 2007

Over on ZDnet Monday I posted RAM to avoid: hot, expensive and slow. I wrote about Intel’s ill-fated attempt to get Fully Buffered DIMMs accepted as the memory standard for servers and workstations.

I got started on the topic because I’m thinking of buying the FB-DIMM saddled Mac Pro. I was wondering why the DIMMs were so expensive, which led me to the great AnandTech review, which totally demolishes the architectural arguments for FB-DIMMS by looking at their real-world performance, which in the worst case is about 20% of the “theoretical” spec Intel touts. “Pathetic” is too kind by half.

The modest virtues of FB-DIMMs have no chance of overcoming these shortcomings. OK, Hillsboro, back to the drawing board.

Architecture-based advocacy is always suspect
I noted that Intel seems to have a consistent problem with architecture decisions, as evidenced by NetBurst, Itanium, RDRAM and now FB-DIMM. I’m sure I’ve left out a bunch, like Infiniband, that ended up nowhere near what Intel originally intended, but whose real quality has earned it a continuing role. Even the success of USB2 is, IMHO, marred by the insistence on the “480 Mb/sec” spec when the actual performance is about half that.

FB-DIMMs will only be a footnote in any list of Intel failures. Anyone got some other candidates? I’m thinking Itanium has to be #1, but to be honest I haven’t followed Intel all that closely. Maybe some of you have.

’tis better to invent and lose, than never to invent at all
Intel’s willingness to take risks is a Good Thing. Yet the continuing problems with taking smart risks in Hillsboro and Santa Clara raises some interesting questions about Intel culture and decision making.

There is a depressing sameness to how poor and non-bright people screw up. Dissecting how the bright, clever and rich people screw up is much more entertaining. We may even reach some non-obvious insights.

Where Intel architects go wrong

  1. Premature excitation: the process of projecting a negative trend forward to a scary future while under estimating opposing trends. With FB-DIMMs, the trends were increasing CPU power and rising memory bus clock speeds, meaning shorter traces and fewer memory slots. (Il)logical conclusion: we’ll soon have really fast CPUs with no memory capacity.
  2. Boiling the ocean: “let’s solve all of today’s computing problems with an architecture so good that when we finally get it out the door in five years it may even solve some of the new problems.” This is the Itanium problem.
  3. Optimizing for marketing: this is the NetBurst problem. Clock speed sells, so let’s build the fast clocks. There are too many details in optimizing a whole system and, frankly, I don’t want to learn all the new stuff required to do that.

Got any other ideas?

Please nominate your favorite Intel architectures, both bad and good.
I’m picking on Intel because they blemished my likely next machine with FB-DIMMs. But I think we can have some fun with this too. Intel guys welcome, but no whining. One EMC is enough.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Ed May 22, 2007 at 7:27 am

I got burned by this too when I replaced my dead G5 with a Mac Pro. Intel is stellar at doing whatever they can to increase latency.

Damien May 22, 2007 at 8:22 am

I was personally thoroughly disgusted when I discovered that the Mac Pro had memory that cost, what five+ times more expensive than DDR/DDR2, with little to no benefit. Remember you’re dealing with 2×2 CPUs, how much are you going to notice a theoretical small bump versus how happier would you be to be able to get an extra 2gb of RAM for $100 instead of $500? If Apple wants to know why they don’t sell many Mac Pro machines they just have to look at their system design. That said, I really like the daughter-board arrangement, makes upgrades very easy, in fact I love the design of my Mac Pro at work, it’s much better than the G4 Digital Audio I have at home ;-)

Robin Harris May 22, 2007 at 8:54 am

Ed,

So do you like the MPro better than the PMac anyway?

Damien,

I agree with you. Apple actually outsourced the design of the MPro mobo to Intel, which is why we’ve got a server chipset in a workstation.

The memory price differential now is about 2.5 x for FB-DIMMs vs PC2 DDR. The AMB buffer chip doesn’t justify that, IMHO, so it is partly a volume problem and partly a margin enhancement scheme. It will never be the same though, and the performance will never improve.

Robin

Chris May 22, 2007 at 1:46 pm

Intel’s missteps when locking themselves into RDRAM kool-aid, and allocating resources to Itanium, arguably gave AMD the desktop system pricing and server market headroom necessary to release the Athlon family. Mainstream x86 CPUs suddenly became a two horse race.

Based on this one example I’m going to infer that these suspect architectural decisions seem to be bad, but not debilitating, for Intel, and good for competition and consumers. More mistakes please Intel!

Ed May 25, 2007 at 10:12 am

Robin, sorry for the lack of reply, the last few days at EMC World were busy. I wouldn’t have bought the mac pro if my g5 didn’t die. Don’t get me wrong, I love the box. The biggest things I like about it are that it’s a lot quieter during heavy loads and 4 sata bays instead of two (which I’ve fully populated).

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