Nvidia's Project Denver and the fate of x86 explored

— 1:14 PM on February 25, 2011

Ars Technica's Jon Stokes has penned a thought-provoking piece that looks at Nvidia's Project Denver and what it means for ARM, Intel, and the fate of x86. Many have wondered why Nvidia elected to go the ARM route instead of developing its own x86 processor. In the article, CEO Jen-Hsun Huang characterizes the technical challenges associated with going the x86 route as "solvable" and says that other factors motivated Nvidia's decision go to in another direction. Among them: the fact that it simply didn't make business sense to challenge Intel in the x86 market given that AMD has struggled mightily to make a profit doing so. Fair point.

Stokes isn't convinced that any ARM-based CPU vendor can match the performance of Intel's x86 designs for the next 5-10 years. He also points out that traditionally low-power ARM designs will have to sacrifice some power efficiency as their performance climbs. This snippet sums it up nicely:

The overall point is that if you absolutely must run some non-enormous number of compute-intensive instruction threads on the CPU (not on the GPU), then you'll want an x86 CPU for the foreseeable future. If you can offload some of that work to the GPU, then you'll want an x86 CPU and a good GPU. In either case, the x86 CPU and GPU combo will give you better performance and performance per watt in such a scenario than a comparable ARM chip—again, this is because of Intel's process leadership, and because Intel has been working on exactly this problem for much longer than any of the upstart ARM guys, with ARM being a total newcomer to the world of performance and out-of-order execution.

Of course, Stokes also notes the rising number of consumers in the market for devices with long battery life and a little CPU horsepower coupled with a powerful GPU. In the next 5-10 years, the popularity of smartphones, tablets, ultraportable notebooks, and even home-theater PCs seems destined to outstrip that of traditional desktops.

With ARM well-suited to those potentially massive markets, Stokes sees two options for Intel. The chip giant could get into the ARM business itself or become more of a "mobile device and consumer electronics company" that sells reference designs that in effect compete with the ARM ecosystem as a whole.

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