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The Next Generation...Finally
It has been a long time since AMD has introduced a new processor architecture. Phenom is nearing its third birthday, which is around 300 years in the world of computer hardware. The Phenom II breathed new life into AMD's processors, but they are still unable to compete on performance with Intel's Core i line of processors.
AMD knows it is time for a new architecture, and is working on a project with the code name of Bulldozer. The existence of Bulldozer has been known for some time now, but recently some new information has been released which gives some clues has to what Bulldozer will be.
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The most interesting departure Bulldozer takes from any processor currently on the market is the way it makes use of cores. Bulldozer processors will consist of modules, each of which consists of two integer cores. The two cores are more closely linked than the cores of any previous processor. Everything is shared except for the L1 cache and the integer schedulers.
Each Bulldozer module with appear as two cores for an operating system. At a distance, this looks much like Intel's hyper-threading, but the fact that two cores exist in the hardware makes it much different. It seems extremely likely that this approach will provide better performance than hyper-threading. However, this approach also requires actual physical space on the CPU. That will drive up power consumption and production cost.
The big question is how AMD will market this technology. If AMD simply takes one Bulldozer module and then prices it to compete against Intel dual core processors, AMD won't have gained any advantage. However, if AMD intends to take two Bulldozer modules (four cores in total) and price them to compete against Intel dual cores it will probably give AMD an edge. Particularly if Intel continues its trend of feature segmentation by disabling hyper-threading on its future low end dual core products.
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Another point of note in the plans for Bulldozer is that while AMD equips each Bulldozer module with two integer cores, there two floating point resources are not similarly split. This may seem a bit odd at first, but the key to this design is AMD's plans for Fusion. The idea is that AMD will be off-loading floating point operations to an integrated GPU in the future.
Fusion has been delayed many times in the past (so has Bulldozer come to think of it), and its unclear how it will materialize in future products. The possibilities are exciting, however, and if everything goes as plans we should see the first Fusion products in 2011 alongside and/or in combination with the first Bulldozer based processors.
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The Bulldozer architecture is not the only architecture which AMD is cooking up. They also plan to release a new mobile architecture, codenamed Bobcat, as well as new variations on the Phenom II which will place a GPU core on to the CPU. Bulldozer will be AMD's flagship, however. It is aimed towards performance desktops and towards server environments.
It is far too early to make any predictions about what Bulldozer's performance will be, but it would be unwise to count AMD out yet. While the Core products currently have a lead over anything AMD can offer, AMD has upset Intel before. The AMD K6 came from seemingly nowhere, and it took Intel years to regain its crown. Perhaps AMD will be able to upset the giant again.