Over the past few years multi-core processors have been coming into our computer systems more and more aggressively. AMD’s and Intel’s marketing efforts were not in vain: they managed to convince the consumers and software developers that increasing the number of computational cores is one of the most optimal ways of increasing the performance of contemporary computer systems. The first half of 2009 turned out extremely significant in this respect, when the dual-core processors were almost completely ousted into the inexpensive solutions segment, and quad-core processors settled down in the upper price segments of the market. However, you shouldn’t think that the arrival and spreading of dual-core and then later quad-core processors is a process with an endpoint. Although not all contemporary tasks can be easily split into parallel threads for easier processing by several processor cores, most resource-hungry algorithms, including applications for media content creation and processing in the first place, can scale their performance perfectly well as the number of parallel thread increases. As a result, there remains room for speeding up popular software applications by introducing CPUs with more computational cores, which becomes a major requisite for the soonest arrival of consumer processors with over four cores.
In fact, only certain production limitations prevent the manufacturers from making CPUs with more than four cores: contemporary semiconductor technologies do not allow designing large processor dies like that at a price point that would be acceptable for the PC market. However, quad-core processors will very soon be ousted from the high-performance market segment, that’s a fact. Solutions like that have already appeared in the high-performance server and workstation market and it is a clear indication of the upcoming changes. At this point six-core server CPUs are available from both manufacturers. AMD Company offers six-core Opteron processors known as Istanbul that are based on 45 nm semiconductor die, similar in microarchitecture to dies used in Phenom II processor series. As for Intel, they have six-core Xeon processors from Dunnington family, also based on 45 nm monolithic die that is made of three Core 2 Duo-like dies joined together and enhanced with a large L3 cache. As the production of these semiconductor dies containing up to 1-2 billion transistors becomes cheaper, six-core processors will eventually appear as desktop solutions.
In fact, we have known about these Intel’s plans for a while no. The first six-core desktop processor from this company aka Gulftown should come out in H2 2010. It will be an LGA1366 solution with a 32nm monolithic core on Westmere microarchitecture (next Nehalem generation). Some time ago we learned about similar plans from AMD. Although this company was only planning to introduce more progressive 32 nm process for their solutions in 2011, they will launch their new six-core CPU also in 2010, around Q2. The corresponding processor is currently known as Thuban and will most likely be a server Istanbul adapted for desktop computers.
However, you don’t have to wait until next year to build a system based on a six-core processor. You just have to find a single-socket mainboard compatible with existing six-core server processors, which functionality will meet the requirements posed for mainboards for common computer systems. In other words, a mainboard like that should have at least PCI Express x16 slots for high-performance graphics accelerators. Luckily, our lab was lucky to find a mainboard like that with a single processor Socket F, which could be used to assemble and test a single-processor system on AMD Istanbul. This way we could take a peek into the future and get an idea of what a six-core processor is capable of in typical desktop tasks.
Moreover, it is also interesting to test Istanbul within a desktop system, because it will allow us to estimate the performance of the upcoming Thuban CPUs. These particular processors should become AMD’s primary weapon in the ongoing competition against Intel. Especially, since frankly speaking, the existing quad-core Phenom II processors seem to be a pretty weak alternative to Core i7 CPUs. Maybe Istanbul (that will eventually transform into a desktop reincarnation aka Thuban) will be able to shake the positions of Intel’s flagship solutions thanks to its additional cores? As we found out during our earlier research, Core i7 processors demonstrate unprecedented performance under well-paralleled computational load primarily due to Hyper-Threading technology support that adds four virtual cores to four “real” ones. As for Istanbul, it can oppose four virtual cores with two additional real ones that is why it is extremely interesting to see how it compares against Core i7.