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CPU Wars, Part 1: When the Chips Are Down

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In the first article of a three-part series, David Chisnall examines the current state of the CPU industry. For the first time in years, there's real competition between CPU manufacturers. Part 1 looks at the general trends in the industry.
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The past few years have been very depressing for anyone watching the microprocessor market. The most elegant architecture, the Alpha, was canceled due to promises from Intel about Itanium. Itanium, while an interesting approach, failed to sell more than trivial numbers of systems. Sun’s SPARC offerings were so bad that Sun was shipping re-badged Fujitsu SPARC64 chips, and IBM seemed to be focusing entirely on the embedded market with its PowerPC offerings and the "you can’t afford this" market with its POWER chips. Intel was stuck with a dead-end architecture that drank power, ran at high clock speeds, and didn’t offer much performance. Only AMD seemed to be producing anything interesting, and that was based on the architecture that we’ve all come to hate.

Recently, this situation has changed. IBM is still selling POWER systems for more than most people can afford, but is blurring the lines between POWER and PowerPC and pushing PowerPC systems for Linux. IBM is also producing the CPUs in all of the current generation of consoles, including the Cell, which we’ll look at a bit later. Sun’s CPU division has woken up and begun producing some quite unusual designs. Intel is still trying to make Itanium useful, but has ditched NetBurst in favor of a much-improved microarchitecture. AMD’s current generation is now looking a little dated, but its next generation is just around the corner.

This article looks at general trends within the industry. The next two parts of the series will focus on individual architectures, and the products we can expect to see in 2007.

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