Get Ready for the Most Interesting CPU Market We’ve Seen in 30 Years
For most of the last 2.5 decades, the PC CPU industry has been dominated by a single architecture: x86. While the 1990s opened with a number of architectures technically still competing with Intel, by the end of the decade, AMD stood alone against the chip titan. IBM threw in the towel on G5 by the mid-2000s. Intel, it seemed, had won.
But the passage of time has a funny way of reshaping our perceptions of an era. Intel’s near-total victory by the mid-2000s now looks more like a temporary pause than a permanent win — and the CPU market is heating up now in ways we haven’t seen in decades. SiFive is claiming it can build a RISC-V desktop chip in the future. Companies such as Ampere and Nuvia are raising funds and impressing investors.
Of course, anyone can draw up impressive-looking spec sheets — but spec sheets aren’t the only thing we’ve got. AMD’s Zen, Zen+, and Zen 2 architectures have repeatedly punched above their weight class, even as Intel’s 10nm stumbles made it more vulnerable to challenge than it would have otherwise been. Intel’s Tiger Lake is an impressive CPU — good enough to retake overall leadership in the mobile market — but questions remain about the parts that will come after it, and how long it will take the company to regain competitive standing at the 7nm node. (Intel currently claims it will be competitive on 7nm and regain leadership on 5nm.)
Then there’s Apple and its self-built CPUs. Again, the company claims it can deliver substantial improvements over and above any x86 CPU. ARM has launched its Neoverse server effort to build market share in the hyperscaler industry and been acquired by Nvidia. The impact of that acquisition is still being sorted out, but some of the newfound interest in RISC-V is reportedly being driven by concerns about Nvidia owning ARM.
Seven or eight years ago, we expected a grand ARM-versus-x86 battle in the tablet and smartphone market. What we got was a handful of skirmishes between midrange parts that settled very little in terms of architectural superiority. To this day, x86 and ARM machines tend to be difficult to cross-compare. One system or the other is often stuck emulating too many applications to truly get a feel for apples-to-apples performance.
I suspect, however, we’ll finally get an answer to these questions over the next few years. ARM and x86 aren’t headed for a collision in the smartphone market; they’re going to war everywhere else. What’s even more interesting is that it isn’t going to be Intel — or at least, it isn’t just Intel — defending the x86 market. In this, AMD and Intel may find themselves the oddest of odd bedfellows. Having spent the last few decades attempting to exterminate its rival by virtually any means necessary, Intel finds itself in the unfamiliar position of needing AMD to mount an effective offensive while it gets its own house in order.
While Intel has a plan to ramp 10nm and progress onwards towards 7nm, it won’t have its new node in market until very late 2021 or early 2022. Ampere (the CPU company) will have next-generation silicon in market by then, and Nuvia may have fielded designs of its own as well. By 2022, Apple will be on its second or third-generation self-built desktop CPU. I’m not saying Intel won’t be able to match or exceed the performance of these challengers, but it may struggle to do so in the short term.
If Intel continues to struggle with 7nm, or if its opponents prove to have stronger designs than anticipated, it’ll fall to Advanced Micro Devices to keep x86 competitive against designs from firms like Ampere, Apple, and Nuvia. This would be an unprecedented situation. AMD has beaten Intel and taken the overall lead in the x86 market before, but it’s never been the primary defender of that market against a rival architecture, mostly because x86 hasn’t had any plausible rival architectures for so many years.
But — and this is the funny thing — AMD needs Intel, too. If Intel stopped selling CPUs tomorrow, TSMC factually lacks the wafer capacity to cover the gap. Every single x86 server Intel ships represents a sale that AMD wants and a bulwark against ARM’s incursion into the larger server market. Every server that goes out the door with an Intel logo on it is a server AMD can still make a play for. Once customers start switching to ARM, convincing them to switch back could be a more difficult proposition.
If Intel continues to struggle with 7nm, it’ll need AMD’s execution to demonstrate that x86 has what it takes to compete. If AMD fails to deliver, the two x86 manufacturers could be pressed back on their heels as new chips and technologies take center stage. AMD, meanwhile, might be the current star of the PC market — but it needs Intel’s sales volume and tremendous install base to position its CPUs as truly attractive alternatives against the uncertainty of an ARM solution.
How will it play out? I truly don’t know. What’s cool is that we’re finally asking the question. AMD and Intel have a lot of practice competing against each other. In another year or two, they’re going to have to prove they can compete effectively against everyone else.