Pat Gelsinger’s return to Intel…

A few days ago came the (not unexpected) news that Intel will have yet another new CEO, the third in three years, and the first in many years to come from an engineering background. This move represents a surprisingly good move for Intel as Pat is well regarded, and has a history leading microprocessor designs during his previous 30 years at Intel (prior to his leadership of VMWare).

In the semiconductor (and broader computing) industry, technical leadership is key. There is simply no alternative. You can’t financially engineer your way out of not having a solid technical grasp on the fundamentals. Well, you can do that, but not for very long if you want to be successful in the longer term. For this reason, I like Pat returning to Intel, but he has his work cut out because the world is rapidly shifting away from where it has been — general purpose systems — and toward a verticalized future built around tech silos.

This is actually the biggest problem Pat faces — that the world is changing. The fabs are a huge issue, and an urgent one at that, but even if that problem were solved tomorrow it wouldn’t offset the fact that the market is going to be fundamentally extremely different in the decade ahead than the decade past.

In the server space in particular, it’s no longer one in which a small number of big CPU vendors duke it out for the hearts and minds of consumers via OEM channels. A jingle and a marketing campaign might sell a lot of chips when you’re selling to consumers (who buy brands, not technology), but the future is one in which there are only 6 or 7 customers driving demand, and they are both extremely sophisticated AND more than capable of taking matters into their own hands, in-house. For the first time, they’re also far larger than any of the component suppliers from which they source their compute needs today.

The cloud folks all want to drive growth of the cloud, which is continuing to grow at an accelerated pace. By taking matters into their own hands, they can not only accelerate that growth, but also drive down economics, and create offerings more heavily optimized for their own needs. This also serves to create stickiness. The “lock in” of the next decade won’t be literally “your software only runs on my cloud” but more that it “runs better on my cloud”. Because I coupled a “right sized” design with the right accelerators and made it “just work”. Logically it looks like a VM or cloud function — or whatever — but underneath it might not even be a single physical machine. With the growth in interconnects (such as CXL), we can compose whatever you need dynamically across a datacenter when your app requests a particular service.

Simultaneously, computer architectures matter less than they did in the past. Once upon a time, you couldn’t have a new entry into the market because the amount of legacy software would absolutely kill you. But many of today’s best developers building the next generation of applications don’t even know what an architecture is, and they don’t care. They use higher level languages, and a DevOps mentality that leverages modern techniques, like containers to deploy scripts and micro-service apps. They don’t care about what chip it runs on.

Thus, we are entering a decade in which the market is ripe for cloud players to dominate the technical direction (which we are already seeing), and I expect this to accelerate rapidly. Amazon have shown what is possible with Graviton and there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. It’s not just about compute either. It’s about the kind of solutions you can build when you have an extremely technically sophisticated customer in the driving seat, building a solution that is focused on being “better”, not on simply more of the same old. And btw, winning marketing SPECint scores are irrelevant to those customers.

I believe innovation will only accelerate to the point where the economics so overwhelmingly favor the cloud that it is finally actually totally impossible to compete at scale with your own datacenters. And worse, the talent available to understand all of these pieces will continue to shrink over time. Many of us grew up building computers, visiting datacenters to get our first “colo machine” into a rack, and all of this fun. The next generation look at this as quaint. Like having a manual transmission in your car, or of driving a buggy.

And on that note, enthusiasts and gamers still love building their own computers, and they love spec numbers, etc. but the average developer is more interested in a laptop with all day battery life that gives them a good experience, and doesn’t heat up their lap in the process. They love the look of the Apple M1 Macs because they see a well-polished solution. And again, it’s a marriage of hardware and software — and acceleration. The compute is of course fascinating to some of us, but that’s actually the boring part.

So what would I do if I were Pat? I would think carefully about all of the above. The next decade isn’t going to be “x86 vs Arm”, or “x86 vs Arm vs RISC-V”. It isn’t going to be some motherboard with a chip and a bunch of PCIe slots you plug whatever adapter widget into. Nobody cares any more. Compute is a boring commodity. It’s something I can license and build for myself if I’m large enough (and many are). The future is about carefully marrying all of the different possibilities together into a whole that includes both compute, as well as acceleration, and leveraging hw/sw co-design.

Anything that makes this easier is a winning strategy. I would look to ways that help to accelerate this as a successful path forward. Personally, I am very very bullish on novel packaging techniques as a path rather than simply a better widget through an improved fab process. The first player to create a viable ecosystem based around standardized “pic ’n mix” chiplets you can glue together into a package is going to have tremendous leverage by the way. I can very clearly see a future in which the “CPU vendors” sell the clouds and OEMs chiplets that they integrate with accelerators into novel purpose fit solutions.

Finally, I would move beyond being defined by one architecture. The future isn’t going to be about x86. It may not be about Arm (although I think it will be), but it definitely won’t be x86. An agnostic viewpoint would be a better strategy. Give those customers what they want, and focus on integrating the pieces of an overall “XPU” solution together better than the next player.

Computer Architect