Intel has raised the curtain on a next-generation, 22-nanometer Atom core microarchitecture code named Silvermont, promising major improvements in power and power efficiency compared with current-generation Atom System-on-a-Chip (SoC) cores.
"Silvermont is a leap forward and an entirely new technology foundation for the future that will address a broad range of products and market segments. Early sampling of our 22nm SoCs, including 'Bay Trail' and 'Avoton,' is already garnering positive feedback from our customers," said Intel executive vice president and chief product officer Dadi Perlmutter.
The first Atom products featuring Silvermont will be quad-core SoCs aimed at tablets and convertibles, Intel said at a press event at its campus. Code named Bay Trail, these chipsets will arrive in products in time for the holiday season this year, according to the company.
The other Silvermont-based SoCs coming down the pike are Merrifield, a dual-core aimed at smartphones and also arriving before the end of 2013, the microserver-targeted Avoton, Rangley, built for networking and security infrastructure like routers and switches, and an unnamed SoC optimized for in-vehicle systems.
Silvermont delivers big boosts to the Atom line's performance and performance efficiency, Intel stressed. The new microarchitecture is three times as powerful as the cores in current Atom SoCs, but it can also reduce power consumption five times when running at the same performance level as its current chips.
Intel also said it will be introducing new Atom designs on a yearly basis going forward, mimicking the "tick-tock" cadence with which the company alternates between process improvements and microarchitecture changes with its Core and Xeon products. When the chip giant moves to the 14nm process node in 2014, an Atom microarchitecture code named Airmont will be introduced, Perlmutter said.
Perlmutter made it clear that Intel has ARM directly in its sights these days. Silvermont products based on Intel's x86 architecture will outperform the next wave of ARM-based SoCs in power efficiency and offer support for 64-bit instruction sets, while also baking in technologies like Intel's new "intelligent burst" throttling of central processor and graphics cores, he said.
"We're on the path of breaking down the myth that ARM can do things that Intel cannot. We've seen this before, but of course, this has nothing to do with the architecture. Our 32-nanometer products have been able to deliver lower power and better performance than ARM products already," Perlmutter said.
Intel has been down this path with Atom before, of course. The company has had a tough time breaking into a mobile device market dominated by ARM-based chips designed by the likes of Qualcomm, Samsung, Apple, and Nvidia. Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst for Moor Insights & Strategy, said Silvermont was another step in the right direction for Intel but that marketing would remain key in an arena where ARM has such a strong foothold.
"Intel's Silvermont CPU is a huge improvement in power and performance, and it will challenge higher end ARM designs. The key will be Intel productizing the CPU core in an SoC. SoC performance and battery life is the most important variable," Moorhead said.
Silvermont's Nuts and Bolts
Belli Kuttanna, an Intel fellow and chief architect of Silvermont, offered more details about the changes Intel is making to Atom with Silvermont, stressing the company's "unique" capabilities as a vertically integrated semiconductor design and manufacturing house..
"It's the ability to really optimise, everywhere from the transistor to the metal stack, to how much you tune the power, and you can apply it all the way to how you optimize a solution," Kuttanna said.
Intel has been able to improve latency and throughput at the single thread level thanks to a new out-of-order execution engine to "get higher performance without compromising power efficiency," he said.
"In the macro operation execution pipeline, our pipeline where we fetch or decode instructions and execute them, we can handle the instructions in a 'fused' fashion. So we don't need the extra hardware and the area cost to get these instructions to perform," Kuttanna said.
Another improvement made to the Atom microarchitecture is the addition of a low-power C state that can wake up faster and be instructed to flush the cache in different ways, including incrementally, based on workloads. Intel's Burst Technology 2.0, which now dynamically detects thermal, electrical, and power delivery constraints when deciding how to utilise SoC assets, adds more capable power management to the Atom platform, Kuttanna said.
Intel is also offering hardware partners the option to turn on security features built into Silvermont like Intel SecureKey and support for McAfee DeepSAFE. Silvermont also features VT-x2, Intel's second-generation virtualisation technology, and software debugging tools like Real Time Instruction Tracing and TSC Deadline Timer.
Atom SoCs based on Silvermont will run Microsoft Windows and Windows Phone, naturally, but Intel has also been busy optimising the architecture for Google's Android mobile operating and other Linux-based software platforms.
"Windows is no big deal, it's the same architecture so it's the same thing as applies to Core [processors]," Perlmutter said. "But we've also done a lot of work on Android in the past few years, like with Houdini, our mechanism for making sure applications are running via Android. We have a dozen [Linux-based smartphones] shipping now, so this isn't new."