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Big Mute

by M.G. Siegler


"The individual transistors themselves are smaller than any wave of light."

Not exactly new -- I still find the extreme bias towards sharing only new articles to be odd -- but a great post on Intel by Max Chafkin and Ian King:

Chip design is mostly a layout problem. “It’s kind of like designing a city,” says Mooly Eden, a retired Intel engineer who ran the company’s PC division. But the urban-planning analogy may undersell the difficulty. A chip designer must somehow fit the equivalent of the world’s population into 1 square inch—and arrange everything in such a way that the computer has access to each individual transistor 3 billion times per second.
The building blocks of a chip are memory controllers, cache, input/output circuits, and, most important of all, cores. On the Pentium III chip you owned in the late 1990s, the core and the chip were more or less one and the same, and chips generally got better by increasing the clock rate—the number of times per second the computer can switch its transistors on and off. A decade ago, clock rates maxed out at about 4 gigahertz, or 4 billion pulses per second. If chips were to cycle any faster, the silicon transistors would overheat and malfunction. The chip industry’s answer was to start adding cores, essentially little chips within the chip, which can run simultaneously, like multiple outboard motors on a speedboat. The plan for the new E5 called for up to 22 of them, six more than the previous version, which would be designed at Intel’s development center in Haifa, Israel.

I grew up in the middle of the "hertz race" (first mega, then giga), and I honestly didn't even realize why the clock rates seemed to suddenly stop going up several years back. 

Intel’s chip designers are committed rationalists. Logic is literally what they do, every day. But if you get them talking about their work, they tend to fall back on language that borders on mystical. They use the word “magic” a lot.
Gelsinger, the former CTO, says he found God a few months after starting at Intel in 1979. “I’ve always thought they went hand in hand,” he says, referring to semiconductor design and faith. Maria Lines, an Intel product manager, becomes emotional when she reflects on the past few years of her career. “The product that I was on several generations ago was about 2 billion transistors, and now the product I’m on today has 10 billion transistors,” she says. “That’s like, astounding. It’s incredible. It’s almost as magical as having a baby.”

Yeah, these people are really into what they do. 


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