Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sunday Night Scotch: Gelsinger Wrong About Intel/ARM, and May Need Help With Math

There's math, and then everything else is debatable...
- Chris Rock

One of the most spectacular wastes of my time over the last 5 years has been the incessant, relentless, and sometimes vacuous discussion about whether the world is going to be dominated by the juggernaut that is the Intel chip machine. You see, I used to work for a company that was so beholden to the idea that Intel would dominate, it didn't really matter what the argument was that was put up against it. Even if you won the battle today, the true believers would come back and reignite the the discussion a few months later, claiming that everything had changed. I'm a software guy. I really do not have a horse in this race. My stuff more or less compiles and runs on any architecture you want to go with. I do, however, want to make money. This is why the line of discourse that Pat Gelsinger took in a panel discussion last week seemed, well, a little off.  Specifically, those of you who were there may recall the tirade he made on ARM processors, saying Intel would win "even if you reduced the power consumption of ARM CPUs down to zero."

Perhaps I am suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting form my experiences of the last 11 years, but hearing that nearly caused me to hurl my coffee at the stage. Back in 2002, I used to think somewhat like him, but I got educated. It's about time that everyone else just ran the math. Intel is great if you are looking for a bunch of pizza boxes to sit in a rack and run VM's, but one only needed to take a walk on the show floor to realize that this is hardly the only use case out there. There is a reason why there is so much custom hardware on the floor. There is a reason why the EqualLogic storage arrays (and others) still run Broadcom. There is a reason why smaller form factor devices run almost anything but Intel.

The causes for which ARM-based and MIPS-based SOC designs will continue to succeed are numerous. Generally, they do indeed consume a lot less power, and, despite the fearless predictions of Mr Gelsinger (and others) this has a lot of consequences. Lower power consumption is not just a "tree-hugger's" value proposition. First, it means that a device does not need to have a power supply that sounds like the back side of a Boeing. It also means that the device need not have a heat footprint that NASA can track from space. In other words, I can put one of these devices on my desk, or on top of my TV, or in my audio cabinet. That alone opens up new markets.

More importantly, there's the simple matter of cost. Once you consider the compute power you get, the costs of additional network connectivity, and the other gizmos that are generally being included on the die with many of these devices, along with the power consumption and heat dissipation advantages, it really is no comparison. That doesn't mean that Intel will never be competitive in this area. For now, and for the last 10 years, that just hasn't been the case. The math always fails to support the rhetoric, as much as many would like it to. Despite this, we all are continuously subjected to relentless propaganda from the guys who have bet the farm on one architecture.

My suggestion: Even if you don't fully buy into an opposing view, it's always useful to have a hedge. Large software codebases inexorably tied to a single vendor's hardware can become strategically vulnerable to disruption. Perhaps this is one reason why Microsoft has brought back the ARM port of Windows. That, and the fact that they want to make money from the increasingly large installed base of ARM devices. Which brings me to my last suggestion: never, ever, let religion get in the way of making money.

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