Computer Technology Update
June 29, 2004
Intel Throws in the Towel
I've mentioned before that increasing computer clock speeds while decreasing chip dimensions tends to lead to ever-higher chip power requirements and heat dissipation. As circuit dimensions decrease by approximately the square root of two with each successive chip generation, twice as many transistors can be crammed on a chip with each succeeding generation. Because each transistor takes up half the area that it did in the previous generation, it can dissipate half the heat if the computer keeps the same clock rate. Since there are twice as many transistors on a chip, the total power generation remains the same. However, we've also seen clock rates ratchet upward with succeeding generations of computer chips, leading to ever-increasing power inputs and heat outputs. Microprocessor chips have now reached thermal outputs of about 100 watts, and are getting harder and harder to cool.
Intel has finally thrown in the towel. Intel will no longer push clock speeds higher and higher at anything like the rate it has in the past. There are still tricks to be played, in the form of power management strategies that power only those parts of the chip that must be powered at any given instant, and in terms of running the chip slower when top speed isn't required. But the headlong pace of the past is passť.
One of the alternate strategies that has been waiting its turn for decades is parallel processing. Like IBM and Advanced Micro Devices, Intel has now turned to mounting two processors on a die, and like the other two, has switched to 64-bit processing.
What can it do for an encore? Well, one move would be to incorporate a "vector" floating-point array, as IBM has done, to further speed parallel computation. Also, main-memory RAM, now running at 400 MHZ, will take a hke this fall when 566 MHz Double-Data-Rate II (DDR-II) RAM becomes available.
Additional increases in clock speed may also appear, but they won't occur at the pell-mell pace of prior years.
Meanwhile, The Cell is working its way toward its public debut. We'll have to see what it portends after it gets here later this year, or early next year.
Meanwhile, Moore's Law Still Obtains
In the meantime, increases in circuit density will continue to arrive at breakneck speed, driven by Intel's adherence to a Moore's-Law.rate of progress. This entails a doubling of chip densities every two years. Right now, chip circuit features are running 90 nanometers, down from 130 nanometers two years ago. Next year (2005), they are scheduled to drop to 65 nanometers. If circuit features were to continue to continue to shrink at the present Moore's-Law rate, Here's how the timetable would look:
2005: 65 nm.
2007: 45 nm.
2009: 32 nm.
2011: 22 nm.
2013: 15 nm.
2015: 11 nm.
2017: 8 nm.
2019: 5.7 nm.
2021: 4 nm.
2023: 3 nm.
2025: 2 nm.
2027: 1.5 nm.
2029: 1 nm.
One nanometer is a few atoms across.
It won't be easy, but there are indications that computer technology will make it to the 22 nanometer node (2011). Beyond that, it's hard to know.
Feature sizes of 22 nanometers will support 16-gigabyte RAM chips, with prices bottoming out at about $50 for 16 gigabytes ($3 a gigabyte) by 2017.
Three-nanometer circuit features (2023) would be required for one-terabyte chips, leading to a cost of $50 a terabyte by 2029. However, new and different memory technologies might become available in the meantime.
Hard Disk Storage
Happily, disk storage technology is putt-putting merrily along. The greatest 3.5"-disk-drive capacity available at this moment is 400 GB, right on schedule. I would anticipate one-terabyte disks by 2006-2007, with multi-terabyte disks by the end of the decade. Again, how far this can go is something that, probably, no one knows.
I'm currently using a 256 MB "thumb drive" as my de facto hard drive, storing important files on it so that I can transfer it at a moment's notice to my laptop, and so that my files will be secure if my hard drive crashes. Flash memory is becoming an important component of block-oriented, random-access storage systems. Unfortunately, as matters stand at the moment, flash memory (electrically-erasable, programmable, read-only memory--EEPROM) doesn't scale well to smaller circuit sizes. However, Ferroelectric RAM and Magnetic RAM are coming on fast, and may take up the sack. In the meantime, I've seen one-gigabyte thumb drives on sale for $100. As they move toward multigigabyte capacities, they may be expected to play an ever-more-important role in computer storage subsystems.
Apple Computer's announcement that it will ship a 30" LCD monitor in August with a resolution of 2,560 by 1,600 for $3,299 is a wave-making announcement. This huge four-megapixel monitor will usher in a new graphics era, both because of its resolution and its screen size. A single Mac G5 computer can run two of these monitors for an 8-megapixel, 16" by 48" display.