Weekly Platform Trends: It's a Workstation World

You may not be a scientist or special-effects artist, but hardware vendors have decided you need a high-powered workstation anyway -- and with 2GHz-plus processors, dual-channel DDR, and supersonic 3D headed for even economy models, the desktop PC will never be the same. Here's why the trend that started with Nvidia's nForce2 and Intel's Hyper-Threading now threatens to make AMD's Athlon 64 obsolete before it ever ships.
Ultra-High-End Technology Goes Mainstream

The insatiable need for ever-higher-performance hardware is one of the hallmarks of personal computing, but lately it's gotten positively decadent. There used to be a clear line between the desktop PC -- i.e., the humble e-mail and word processing system -- and the professional workstation, or high-priced hub of the most exotic scientific or 3D graphics applications. But with today's super-fast CPUs, ultra-optimized platforms, and unprecedented 3D accelerators, that line's blurred almost to oblivion.

Intel Corp. has been the main driver behind this trend -- which is not to say that AMD hasn't kept pace in the CPU performance arena, but that Intel's latest Pentium 4s and chipsets have a distinct workstation flavor to them. The chip giant's first foray was the announcement of Hyper-Threading technology, which created two logical processors from a single physical CPU and promoted multithreading as well as multitasking in the desktop environment.

Hyper-Threading's real-world performance increase was only in the range of 10 to 15 percent for most desktop applications, but its implications were clear: Once the domain of the high-end, dual-processor workstation, multithreading has become a mainstream technology and will be part of all upcoming Pentium 4 chips. The technology will become more entrenched with each successive Intel release, and should really come into its own with the upcoming 90-nanometer P4 "Prescott" core.

Yes, We Have No Desktop Chipsets Today

The chipset market shows the workstations-for-everybody trend at its most blatant, with Intel again taking a lead role. Nvidia arguably started the fashion with its nForce2, which isn't a workstation part per se but whose dual-channel DDR400 memory controller definitely set the high-water mark for desktop architectures. SiS also dabbled in dual-channel designs. But it's been Intel that's really put workstation platforms on the map.

The E7205 "Granite Bay" emerged as Intel's first dual-channel DDR chipset, and though it was officially positioned as a workstation product, motherboard vendors thought differently and hurried to release E2705 desktop platforms. Demand was so high that initial supplies were scarce, as heat-seekers proved eager to get some workstation-class performance on their home or office desktops.

High demand begets new products, and Intel naturally ramped up for a more powerful version of its E7205. Strangely, its next dual-channel DDR release was once again a workstation-oriented chipset, with the i875P "Canterwood" adding support for DDR400 memory and an 800MHz front-side bus. As with the E7205, desktop motherboard manufacturers jumped on the i875P train, and even Intel now refers to the chipset as a hybrid desktop/workstation design. This workstation-first chipset strategy begs the question of whether Intel needs to cater to these markets with two different product lines.

Is This Chip Really Necessary?

A rising tide lifts all boats, but also drowns anyone anchored to the low-tide line. The philosophy behind separate lines of high-end and entry-level processors dates back to a bygone age when speedy CPUs were priced in the stratosphere, and the huddled masses demanded a CPU to call their own. These specially engineered, stripped-down processors -- first the Intel Celeron, then the AMD Duron -- served to extend their makers' market share, since a sale at any price is better than no sale at all. But a funny thing has happened on the way to the local Wal-Mart: High-end CPUs prices have fallen through the floor.

In many ways, the value processor has lost its raison d'être. As evidence of this trend, AMD has shut down its Duron line and Intel has neglected to keep the Celeron design up to current requirements. Platform design and performance requirements are driving the entry-level CPU toward obsolescence, as there's immense value inherent in buying, say, a longer-lived Pentium 4/dual-channel DDR desktop over an already-uncompetitive Celeron and i845PE.

The nForce2 is already a standard platform for even low-priced AMD systems, and once Intel ships its mainstream i865 "Springdale" chipsets, the Celeron's days may be numbered. After all, a Celeron in a dual-channel DDR400 motherboard is like a lawn-mower engine under the hood of a Porsche.

Similarly, but even more interestingly, there's a rumor making the rounds that AMD may not follow through on its plans for a desktop Athlon 64 processor (still officially due in September), and instead stick with the Opteron workstation CPU as the base of its performance desktop solution. Regardless of what AMD chooses to do, the idea makes sense, at least to anyone scratching his head over the different platforms announced for the Opteron and Athlon 64.

Until last month, AMD motherboards used a standard Socket A CPU interface, but in the proposed new scheme of things, the Athlon 64 would use a new Socket 754 while the Opteron requires a larger Socket 940 package. This seems odd coming from the company that championed a consistent Athlon/Duron/Athlon XP platform so skillfully that even Intel had to dump its myriad packages and pinouts and come around to its current, one-size-fits-all Socket 478 design. Multiple platforms create headaches for system vendors, additional costs for motherboard R&D and production, and are a royal pain in the behind for upgrade-oriented buyers.

Now that workstation power is finding a home on the desktop, it's a short leap of logic to see desktop AMD64 systems using the same platform as the Opteron, especially since the latter's integrated memory controller and HyperTransport have superceded the chipset Northbridge and made Southbridge components easily transferable. AMD even has a uniprocessor Opteron workstation design in the form of its forthcoming Opteron 100 series, which looks a whole lot like a larger-L2-cached Athlon 64.

The Highs Have It

If performance is the name of the desktop hardware game, then the workstation incursion has only just begun. Processor advances like the Opteron's integrated memory controller, i875P chipsets that bridge multiple markets, and even operating systems like the Hyper-Threading/SMP-enabled Windows XP all point to more workstation-like power on the desktop. Traditional desktop segmentation is losing steam, performance is once again king, and Intel, AMD and Nvidia have proven: If you build it, they will come.






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