Intel in flux: are we headed for a socket-less future?

Features Mark Pickavance Jan 17, 2013

Mark Pickavance examines the changes that may herald a new Intel

Intel has ruled the roost in computing silicon since the early eighties, and capitalising on its x86 architecture (together with partners like Microsoft) it has built a massive technology empire. Nothing lasts forever, though, and with an ever-changing technological topology shifting beneath its very feet, is Intel planning to do something drastic for the longer term viability of the company?

A changing world

Most people have grown up with Intel powering the world’s computers. ‘Intel Inside’ has become an assumption most people make upon seeing a system because, apart from some very odd times in the past 30 or so years, Intel always made the best desktop PC processors. What’s more, it has largely dominated the mobile computing space too, until recent times and the growth of ARM in the tablet and smartphone markets.

That’s not to deride AMD’s attempts to challenge it for desktop supremacy, and that company’s undoubted influence on the technology we have now. The thing is, at no point did it ever look like Intel would take the runners-up medal in the race to be the biggest chip maker in desktop computers, and AMD has never managed to show it a clean pair of heels.

What’s fascinating about Intel is that it built a simple but effective chip selling business and, off the back of the success of the IBM PC, rode it to billions of chip sales and many more billions in yearly profits. Unfortunately, having all-but neutralised AMD, it then sat back to enjoy a few decades of ‘business as usual’, and somewhat failed to notice how the landscape of consumer computing was subtly changing.

Intel has had a few diversions away from the venerable x86 format, most notably The Disaster That Shall Not Be Discussed (aka Itanium) and a low power offering in the form of the Atom. The problem is, the Itanium has become a technological funeral pyre on which HP is slowly being roasted, while the Atom didn’t exactly set anyone’s world alight. It turns out, though, while the Atom was wrong product, it moved the company in the right direction - because the (then) unseen assassin that was ready to strike from the shadows was the company formerly known as Advanced RISC Machines (now ARM to its friends, and its enemies), and its amazing low power devices.

The launch of the Apple iPhone back in 2007 started a chain of events that Intel never anticipated, and propelled ARM from being a company that historically came from Acorn and the BBC Micro to challenge Intel’s domination of the world processor market.

It’s not that ARM itself makes all the chips that go in phones, tablets, cameras, NAS boxes and Raspberry PI’s, it actually licenses its tech to a variety of companies that make their own flavours of its special sauce. It’s proving to be a very profitable recipe, that’s for sure.

In contrast, it’s taken Intel five years to enter the smartphone market. The distance between it and ARM was then put in sharp relief when press releases with headlines like ‘Intel Cracks Smartphone Apps Processor Market’ heralded it’s capturing of a record 0.2% share of that market in 2012 (after delivering precisely 0% in 2011. ‘Scuffs’ is probably a better word than ‘Cracks’ to describe its success in this sector so far. By its own standards, its a long way from domination, and it has also failed to make much of a dent on the tablet market either, which is again entirely dominated by ARM-derived products.

With the momentum moving away from the company, it’s not surprising that it’s making plans to wrestle back the initative.

2013, and all Haswell

Roadmaps are a tasty source of information, if you’re adept at reading between the press releases and filling in the obvious omissions yourself. A fine example of the Intel’s approach to such activities, is its Desktop Platform Roadmap, covering the period Q1 2012 to 1H 2013.

It covers the last of the Sandy Bridge generation, and the continuation of the Ivy Bridge range we’re currently enjoying, before priming us for the introduction - sometime between March and June of next year - of it’s next step forward: ‘Haswell’. Eagled-eyed readers of the map quickly noticed that, while Ivy Bridge covers LGA 1155 and Sandy Bridge-E takes the LGA 2011 high ground, Haswell is to be given a whole new Socket (1150). Quite why it needs to dispense with five pins isn’t obvious, but on the surface it could be said to adhere to Intel’s modus opperandi of changing sockets on a regular basis to keep motherboard manufacturers in business.

This raised few eyebrows, but more speculation spawned from the release of a Japanese chart showing that Haswell itself will be followed by a new chip ‘Broadwell’ in 2014 (reportedly on an amazing new 14nm fabrication). What socket will Broadwell be on? Well the chart says ‘SoC’, which means ‘System on a chip’, which infers that this CPU won’t be on a socket because it carries many of the support chips with it and can be surface-mounted to a motherboard. The technical term for this is a ball grid array (BGA), and that’s the same technology that Intel has used with the Atom, which isn’t replaceable by a user.

If true, then Haswell’s legacy could be to represent the very last socketed desktop processor produced by Intel. Beyond that line, you could well be buying an entirely new motherboard in order to upgrade the processing power of a system.

The general plan with Broadwell is that the chip will carry the CPU, GPU and integrated memory controller (as with current designs) and that it will be coupled with a Wildcat Point input/output controller. That chip will be created with various power envelopes for mobile and desktop use, and it will dictate what the Broadwell chip is capable of doing in terms of clock speed and turbo mode.
If this really is the intention then it represents the commoditisation of the PC into an appliance, and potentially the end of enthusiast -built and tweaked systems entirely.

Why this may not be 100% true

As a number of people have eloquently pointed out, a single swallow doth not a summer make. In this case, that means: while Broadwell might well be delivered on BGA, it might also come on a socket. This would make some sense, as the market for workstation-class hardware is still reasonably strong and has been remarkably profitable for Intel.

Intel has done well from selling people a cheap Celeron and then upgrading them to something better later, as it enables them to spread the full cost of ownership over time. The lack of that upgrade conveyer belt is difficult to quantify in Intel’s sales planning, but it must have some figures tracking how many processors an average enthusiast might buy for a single system. It also may have quantified what second hand CPU sales cost it through the likes of Ebay. It’s complicated stuff, but you’d reckon that someone is doing the math.

Whatever the numbers say, this isn’t something that Intel will want to jump into with both feet. As such, it would make more sense to see a transitional proposition where a new chip is both BGA and socketed, to see if ending the latter tradition is a viable option. I would think it’s safe to say that Intel is definitely considering this ambitious move - though whether it’s written is stone (after crunching plenty of numbers on how it might affect sales and upset the private system builders) is doubtful. It may well be that, eventually, it concludes that it can leave the enthusiast/upgrader business to AMD, without damaging its overall profitability, as radical as that may be.

If anything resembling the plan I’ve outlined comes to pass, it would mark the most radical change of direction that Intel has ever made; serving to spotlight the seriousness with which the decline of the desktop market is viewed internally.

Is it totally a bad idea?

When I first heard this my reaction was probably the same as many of you reading this now: surely the strength of the PC is its flexibility and upgradability, and ending socketed CPUs is the thin end of a very big wedge? The truth, actually, is that we should have been expecting this because as the number of pins that processors need goes up, it becomes less practical to have a socket to support them.

I have an LGA 2011 test rig, and the CPU on that machine is almost the size of a drinks coaster. The silicon part of that package is much smaller than the whole CPU, the size of which is dictated by the 2011 little dimples it needs to connect to the PC. Each of those little pins in the socket is a potential point of failure, and at some point the likelihood of getting a system to work reliably is going to be impaired by the statistical certainty that one of the pins won’t be touching the chip fully. There’s also the fact that a socketed chip must have all the lines that connect it on one side of the motherboard, while BGA chips can be suspended so that lines from both sides of the board can be accessed. It all amounts to a huge issue surrounding board complexity, layers and the number of tracks that can be practically supported.

Simply put: doubling LGA to 4022 pins could easily render motherboards too expensive to be commercially viable. Also, a BGA mounted chip is always going to be more reliable, and if it sits in a hole in the motherboard it can be cooled from below and above.

However, it’s worth considering that doing that only puts off the complexity problem with for a few years, because even using BGA there’s a limit to how many connections a chip can reasonably make to a motherboard.

To this writer’s mind I can foresee only two possibilities for CPUs a decade from now. One is that very high speed serial linkage is developed so, like USB and SATA, the data flows in and out of the processor using a very small number of wires that are manipulated at high speed. Another is that an optical interconnect is developed, where laser light is channelled into and out of the chip in a single piece of fibre, where many thousands of channels in both directions can be defined, or even dynamically allocated.

Ironically, if a simple optical connection was established the chip would only require that and power, making socketed chips again both practical and possibly desirable.

Rather than focusing on our own reaction to this, it’s worth assuming Intel’s position, where it is trying to sell processors in an increasingly competitive market. BGA packaging is cheaper, and allows it to tie motherboard makers into the chip supply channel. It also enables it to control major customers like Apple more succinctly, and effectively turns the whole PC market into a bigger version of the mobile/tablet sector.

Ultimately, it means it doesn’t need to support an end-user chip channel, or cope with processor warranties, or people re-badging its products and selling them as something better than what left the factory.

The downside

What I immediately thought when I first heard about this roadmap was that all computers would be likely to degenerate into those systems where everything’s melded to a screen, iMac style. Almost without exception these aren’t good computers, and they usually best represent a victory of style over functionality.

If you use a computer just to do word processing or surf then you probably don’t care, but for those people who use theirs for so much more they’re a retrograde step that’s a modern analogy of the PET computer or the Sharp MZ series. Is that what we want?

Nor is it an environmentally-sensitive template. Currently, if your motherboard develops a fault you can take your CPU, memory, etc. and place it on a new motherboard. In a socket-less future, if either your CPU or the motherboard has a problem then they’re both toast.

Enthusiasts might not be so keen, and motherboard makers might be wondering if it is a change that’s in their best interests too, as it provides and additional challenge for those making these systems: once a CPU is attached to a board, it can’t be pulled off should the market make a sharp turn and demand for that product dry up. That in turn makes new product launches tricky, because a manufacturer must decide well in advance how many of each it is likely to sell. Getting it wrong will result in lost sales and unsold stock, and a company being lumbered with CPUs (bought from Intel) that can’t be returned as ‘unsold’.

This represents a massive movement of risk because, while Intel currently carries the can if a CPU isn’t a rip-roaring success, after the shift motherboard makers will get to share that pain too. I can see that Intel might find that attractive on one level, but it’s also a motherboard maker so it’s not all good news.

It seems doubtful that motherboard makers of the future will want want to carry the full range of Intel options; they make enough different products already. Multiplying current lines by all the CPU choices would surely be a logistical nightmare. A typical online vendor I picked on for the purposes of this article currently sells about 23 Intel processors on LGA 1155 (from the Celeron G465 to the Core-i7 2700K), while Gigabyte (again, for example) lists 196 motherboards for that socket, over 11 different chipsets! You do the math.

The forcing of motherboard and CPU combinations would, I suspect, drastically reduce the number of choices. If it didn’t, the likes of Gigabyte and Asus would end up listing thousands of products, made with short (and therefore expensive) production runs. A good example of this is Apple’s iMac, where you can have two screen sizes and two processor specs on each, and that’s it. What’s more, that decision assumes customers want to spend a minimum of £1,099 on a system - not a price that many people would accept for a Core i5 with a GeForce GT 640M GPU.
If this isn’t enough to convince the shrinking number of motherboard makers to find some other business, then what would it take, I wonder?

Emotional

There is an something akin to an emotional connection most people have to the processor socket on a computer, because it was one of those things that made the PC what it is today - along with features like PCI slots, and memory modules. However, for a long time now, laptop makers have been designing systems where you can only upgrade the memory and the hard drive, while Apple has even declined to offer those opportunities on systems like its Mac Book Air.

I'm pretty sure it’s Apple’s success that’s driving these changes, as being the most profitable company in the world has an impact on all the other companies that would like that moniker too. As such, it’s dawning on Intel that giving people choices has a cost implication, makes systems marginally less reliable, and can also be a deterrent to them buying new computers.

You can bet your life that, somewhere deep in the bowels of Intel’s accountancy department there’s a spreadsheet showing what it makes in processor upgrade sales, with some sort of projection as to how that feeds through into new system sales. I’d then go on to wager that the same chart hints at the idea that we’re at a tipping point where less people are upgrading their systems and sales of totally new systems are in a balance of sorts. That tipping point makes it conceivable that Intel could consider a form of commercial cannibalism, where Intel it eats one of its markets in order to ensure the profitable development of another one.

AMD represents a real wild-card, however. One which is showing no intention of leaving the socket behind, and could therefore become the go-to company for enthusiasts should Intel stop supporting the PC flexibility we’ve come to love. What’s more, with Apple managing to (to an extent, at least) turn the PC into a commodity, and Microsoft - with the introduction of Surface - trying to pull the same trick, the disappearance of the CPU socket could be just the tip of a much larger iceberg. Intel could well face the prospect of navigating around multiple new challenges that it has never experienced the like of before. In this light, it’s probably best to have a map - for it’s sake, it better be the right one, though.

That metaphor renders these socket shenanigans as examples of Intel is trying desperately to adapt to a future where the desktop CPU isn’t the most plentiful thing it makes, and no longer the hinge on which the entire company’s future depends. It’s looking increasingly like Paul Otellini has seen some sort of portentious writing on Intel’s wall, and decided to be the CEO that set the course for the continuing success of the company he’s served for so long, and not the one who left it adrift in uncharted waters.

Intel, as we’ve come to expect, is bullish about the future and how it will make the best Smartphone chips if we just give it a chance. A stance that totally ignores the fact that ARM has been designing these devices since 1983, and has acquired a vast amount of knowledge about making them more efficient in the years since.

I suspect Intel might be falling into the same trap as Microsoft by assuming that people want Windows on a phone, and that developers want good old x86 on a mobile device too. They don’t, and I suspect that the sooner that Intel wakes up to the fact that x86 is a horse it’s flogged beyond mortality, the quicker it can address its lack of a track record in this specific chip expertise area.

Early in 2013, Intel will release its final figures for Q4 2012, which under normal circumstances should include a lift from the Windows 8 launch. If that bump is missing in action, or worse shows that ARM based tablets are eating Intel’s lunch, then it won’t only be socketed processors that will be in the firing line. 

More changes

Chief Executive, Paul Otellini took over from the previous boss of Intel, Craig Barrett, in 2005. Otellini has a very long track record with the company he joined way back in 1974, well before the PC revolution. Just a few short weeks ago, Otellini announced that after a mere 39 years service to Intel, he’d be retiring in May of 2013, sending the tech-industry into widespread chin scratching about who might replace him.

The first opportunity anyone got to question him as to the likely direction that Intel might take was at a Sanford Bernstein investor conference, when he was ostensibly there to talk about Mobile chip manufacturing. Currently Intel’s mobile silicon is fabricated for it by Samsung, (which, bizarrely, is also a competitor in the phone/tablet space), though the hint was that Intel would like to take this manufacturing in-house, reducing overheads, better utilising their facilities and taking business away from a major competitor.

Batting away a question about his successor, Otellini said, “It’s not up to me but I think that’s the most likely outcome. I’m very comfortable with the internal candidates and the track record of internal versus external in our industry shows pretty clearly you want to stay inside if you can.”
If that statement didn’t cause enough speculation, he then added that “even if you brought in Mr. or Ms. Perfect, that person is going to take whatever it is, two years to figure out the culture and the people and how systems work and stuff like that.”

The problem with that last statement is that it’s not certain that Intel has two years to work things out in the rapidly altering market, and whomever Intel blesses with the CEO mantle is going to have to hit the pavement running. That strongly suggests that that it will be an internal appointee, because an outsider could be the kiss of corporate death for the company.