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.