Intel Just Gave Us A Glimpse At The Near Future Of CPUs

This year’s Intel i9-9900K. It goes fast. (Photo: Alex Cranz, Gizmodo)

Intel’s had a rough year, with major departures, security disasters, dwindling sales compared to its competitor, and the general appearance of a company trailing the competition technologically speaking. But in the twilight days of 2018 Intel’s laid out a plan of action to remind us all of exactly why Intel first crushed the competition to begin with, and it just gave us a peek behind the curtain about what’s to come.

The plan of action has three prongs: New integrated GPUs, new CPU architecture, and a new way of designing the chip itself that should make its processors as nimble and scalable as AMD’s.

These all feel like direct responses to criticisms Intel has faced lately. Its integrated GPUs simply can’t compare to those on AMD chips or to discrete graphics from Nvidia. Intel has been getting creamed, and its own discrete GPU isn’t expected until 2020. Meanwhile, Intel publicly struggled to get its first 10nm processors, codenamed Ice Lake and based on its Skylake architecture, out the door. It’s repeatedly had to delay the chips making investors and consumers alike wary of the company’s future.

Intel needs to confront all these issues, and in a series of announcements today it looks like it has.

Earlier this year AMD collaborated on a chip that integrated an AMD GPU with an Intel CPU. It was a precursor to today’s news. (Photo: Alex Cranz, Gizmodo)

The first is improved integrated graphics. We know Intel has been investing heavily in rivaling AMD and Nvidia on the GPU front, and its new Gen11 integrated graphics won’t be the major step forward, but it will still be a big one. Current CPUs from Intel with integrated graphics are based on Gen9, which uses 24 enhanced execution units. Gen11 jumps that number to 64 and Intel claims it will double performance versus Gen9. The new integrated graphics will appear in 10nm chips next year.

The second prong is a new microarchitecture to replace the Skylake one that powers most of our servers, laptops, and desktops. Intel is calling it Sunny Cove, and as Skylake and its subsequent iterations always included “lake” in the name, Sunny Cove and its iterations will likely include “cove.” “That is one of the great things about having the code names be geographic features,” Ronak Singhal, Intel Fellow, and director for CPU computing architecture at Intel told Gizmodo. “There is an unlimited supply of options.”

Intel isn’t sharing any performance data or even a roadmap for Sunny Cove, but it assured us that we’ll see a Sunny Cove product available in the marketplace soon—possibly even next year. Singhal told me that when designing a new core, his team focuses on two types of improvement. The first is “out of the box performance,” or gains you get simply by replacing the old CPU with the new one. In other words, making sure that software available right now runs better and more efficiently on the future CPU.

The second kind of improvement is a little more critical to Sunny Cove. It’s what Singhal refers to as “targeted algorithms” for the instruction set of the cores.

The instruction set is the facilitator between the hardware of the CPU and the software on your storage drive, and Singhal’s team has attempted to improve the instruction set for Sunny Cove in three big areas: cryptography, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. This means coders could potentially see major performance gains writing, testing, and running their programs on Sunny Cove CPUs versus Skylake or AMD CPUs. To that end, Intel is also releasing new software called One API, designed to make tweaking software for its hardware even simpler.

But the Sunny Cove and Gen11 news are just two prongs. The other prong strikes me as more exciting—if also more complex. Intel has figured out a way to build CPUs vertically. Traditional CPUs are built along an x-y axis. They’re a single level ranch house. You can cram a whole lot of stuff into a CPU, but it can only all be connected if it’s physically on the same level. Building vertically usually introduces terrible lag.

But Intel thinks it’s sorted out a way to build vertically instead—think a high rise. The concept itself is called 3D stacking, and we’ve seen it already in memory, specifically high bandwidth memory (HBM). HBM is faster and less power hungry while also taking up less space because it stacks the necessary components for the memory on top of each other.

A basic diagram of the Foveros CPU. (Image: Intel)

3D stacking in CPUs is also possible and should provide similar gains, but until now we have not seen this kind of 3D stacking—known as logic-on-logic—in consumer-grade devices. Intel hopes to change that in late 2019 using its 3D stacking technology, Foveros. Foveros will be used in a new chip that will have a 10nm chiplet stacked onto a low power die. Ramune Nagisetty, Director of Process & Product Integration at Intel and one of the leads on this 3D stacking project, told me “this essentially enables the best in class performance and power efficiency, and the smallest form factor as well.”

There are challenges to designing chips vertically. You can’t make them too tall for instance. Another major one is thermals. Components of a traditional CPU are all on one level so they can all have contact with the heatsink and stay cooler. Nagisetty stresses that careful consideration has to be made in the designing of these chips to make sure that the hottest components are closest to the heatsink.

She added that her team had been working on 3D stacking for years though. “I can’t say how long we’ve been working on these technologies, but I can say that it’s been for a lot longer than anything related to 10 nanometre.” Which means these challenges won’t, presumably, bite early adopters in the arse. It also might explain why Intel has seemed almost nonplussed by the frequent delays of its 10nm chips. It figured out a way to make the CPU equivalent of a high rise!

Whether that high rise ends up being a towering inferno remains to be seen. Intel plans to ship a CPU next year with 3D stacking incorporated, and while it would not clarify what kind of product that chip was expected to appear in, the impression I gathered was that it would be a consumer-facing product—likely for a laptop.

As for the security of all these new chips, multiple people at Intel have stated that both the upcoming Ice Lake, as well as the Sunny Cove CPUs will have hardware mitigation for strains of the nasty Spectre and Meltdown security exploits that made news at the beginning of 2018.

Which means Intel’s year of hell could be over soon. We won’t know for sure until we start seeing these chips in actual products though. So keep your eyes peeled for them in late 2019.

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