Computing Epochs

Moore (Intel) and Cycles of Re-inventions

A talk I gave (at Intel) a year and a half back on technology cycles, Moore’s law and cycles of how starting with semiconductors the fountain head of technology has shaped the cycles of re-inventions.

It took more than a year to post a more verbose version of the talk in this format. So its broken down to four parts, roughly co-inciding with the four different epochs. We have entered the fourth Epoch of modern computing era beginning with Intel, Schottky, Arthur Rock and the Fairchild 8.

Intel has been part of each transition in both good and not so good ways…

The PreMoore or Pre-Cambrian explosion of is here (More Memory). Memory was the instigator.

That was followed by the Cambrian explosion with the Web 1 or Internet 1 era ending with dot-com. Logic was the Pivot. That summary is here (Logical Moore)

Then came the many moore or multi-core, virtualization, cloud and that is here. (Many Moore)

Finally speculating on the future is here (Moore No More)

But more to come on the future as we have entered the next disruptive phase.

Moore Memory – Epoch I

This is the ‘pre-cambrian’ explosion of semiconductors that created many categories and industries starting with the invention of the first diode to the shift from memory driving semiconductor processes to logic (the famous Andy Grove Pivot).

As shown in the visual below, it was the era of Bipolar (pre-CMOS), the creation of the first calculator based on 4004 that punctuated the beginning of modern semiconductor and Intel’s thumbprint in the evolution of semiconductors.

Going down the memory lane, its 1968 and the creation of the first semiconductor memory which was followed soon by frederico faggin and the 4004 architecture and the beginning of an instruction set (x86) that has remained upwards compatible (largely) to-date. Amazing that it has withstood the test of processor evolution and competition for 50 years almost. It was the height of IBM mainframe with its 370 and 360 architectures, DEC with its mini super computers and Sperry and Univac / Burroughs challenging IBM for business/commercial computing.

It was also the beginning of the modern version of venture capital with Arthur Rock making his first investment in Intel. 1972 was also the vietnam end game, oil crisis while quietly Arpanet with its first pings between two locations across the country happen. Seeds of ethernet was sown then which has also survived the onslaught of other ideas.

The perfect mix of Ethernet, PNP devices (flavors changed with time), CISC/x86 and by late 1970s, Microsoft and BSD Unix – all of these were given birth in this era and lifted so many companies, so many entrepreneurs, so many industries, countries too. (Taiwan eventually, which is in the news lately).

1976-1980 with 8086 – the birth of the modern microprocessor, BSD Unix and DOS. Looking back as in the Epoch III, it was the ARM, iPhone and AWS – how co-incident (within years) technologies that are seemingly unliked (Unix and Windows), but play a role eventually for new categories of platforms.

That era ended around Circa 1984 (roughly) 16 years, with Intel dropping memory for logic (a critical decision by Andy Grove), the birth of RISC with two competing professors and institutions (Berkeley and Stanford, Hennessy and Patterson) and the emergence of the Mac.

Little did I know reflecting back or googling back in history, that this era was punctuated by other magnetic drives giving birth to the modern hard disk, compilers and most important of all CMOS – complementary metal oxide semiconductor. CMOS was not Intel’s initial choice, but it came just by sheer nature of its characteristics beating out NMOS, PMOS and more importantly Bipolar or emitter coupled logic – not for power density (which was the reason claimed them) – just the scalability it showed over time.

Software as an industry/category was effectively created by Microsoft (mainframes and minicomputers had a closed software ecosystem). Oracle and SAP were founded and the big enterprise software market was effectively created at the same time as client software company was founded (microsoft and perhaps Apple) – Co-incidence?. Database was a separate category / company or bundled by the big mainframe makers.

1984: Big Brother did not appear and it was the dawn of open and free internet, open systems (Sun), new microprocessor approach (RISC), compilers became good enough to beat most hand written code.

Little did I know 1984 was the year IP law was formulated thanks to intense lobbying by Intel to fend off the Japanese who were competing rather well afgainst Intel on memory (which is no longer in Japan either now).

Rising tide lifts all boats. The chart below the boats that the confluence of MOS, Unix, Windows, PC, Server and the 10Mbps ethernet (which is now 10,000 times faster).

It was the birth and quick death of AI (expert systems) within a short span of a few years. Categories that were founded were Database, personal computing (SW and hardware), technical workstations that led to client-server later, birth of modern networking, OEM business (separation of selling hardware from software), Internet and the end or the beginning of the end of vertically integrated Mainframe, Intel and memory, (NMOS, PMOS, Bipolar)

My professional life in technology and semiconductors (which was not the original plan like most) started at the end of this era competing with Intel via RISC, Sun, CMOS and in hindsight carried through the Epoch II (1987-2003), which was the exponential part of Moore’s law.

How lucky I was in retrospect to enter the semiconductor industry Epoch II. That’s the next blog.

Logic(al) Moore – Epoch II

The Cambrian explosion era: This part of Moore’s law evolution is most interesting/exciting as it simultaneously saw the rise of various companies, categories, technologies, business models and everything in between but more relevant for me personally as it overlapped personally with my professional life /growth. So the impressions left are stronger and deeper.

But, let’s start with a recap of the Moore growth curve and timelines..

This was Internet 1 or Web 1.

CMOS established itself as the dominant. RISC established as the dominant microprocessor architectural model (which was eventually co-opted by x86/CISC), OEM as a category emerged, not just for compute, but for networking (Cisco) and more relevant EMC (Storage).

The creation and formalization of Software (Enterprise and Consumer), Compute, Network and Storage OEMs and connecting all them to create the network effects we see the results today.

In 1985, the 386, 5″ HDD helped accelerate the PC revolution. The Pizza box Sun workstation which later gave way to the 1U server driving the client – server architectural model fueled by the killer micros taking on VAX and IBM 360 to onslaught both the big enterprise technical and commercial computing.

The $75B dollar OEM business we see today was created from $0B by EMC, Cisco, HP, Sun, SGI, IBM and many more.

1991-1995 and later 1999-2003 are two interesting segments of this era.

1991-1995: The emergence of the Mosaic browser was co-incident with creation of Linux to challenge prior proprietary Unix operating systems that eventually led to the creation of the LAMP stack and thus rudimentary version of the ‘cloud stack’, all open source and helped consolidate x86 as x86 caught up with the RISC by late 1990s on performance, MHz marketing, and enterprise RAS capabilities. It was also the beginning of 64 bit computing led by MIPS, SPARC and eventually PPC and x86. But the modern cloud distributed systems design was created by Akamai which was founded in response to a challenged by Tim Berners Lee back in 1995. Its interesting to look back in time to see how technology evolutions like biological evolutions are both a random walk, survival of the fittest and is constrained (in this case) by faster, cheaper, better, more scale.

1998 is interesting looking back – Founding of Google, VMware, Equinix and many more – but today in 2022, Google epitomizes the leading edge of systems, while VMware has followed the Sun trajectory of living breathing for 20 years to get eventually acquired by another company whereas Equinix a real estate company is moving up the value chain to become the switzerland (potentially) the of physical infrastructure.

1998 is interesting from an Intel standpoint. It had won the client side computing, but failed to get significant market share in the enterprise, technical computing but was not the leader in semiconductor logic (it had compatriots in IBM and TI at a minimum).

But rising to the challenge of beating all the RISC vendors, with MHz marketing as an additional weapon, the technology (fab) guys at Intel took it upon to push ahead starting with 0.18 uM (Coppertone) to advance the transistor performance so hard that we at TI (then) and soon IBM felt it was not an economically competitive game to play.

The above chart (not a totally fair chart to compare two different microprocessor design styles with one metric – MHz), still its the best way to highlight what Intel and their fab did back in 1998 to separate the men from the boys, so to speak.

1998 was the beginning of the end of big SMP as witnessed by a 64GB 64 core SPARC SMP selling for $1M (today 64GB is $250 or less) but was the dinosaur (looking back) that had to give way to the rising tide of small 1U distributed system design that was initiated by Akamai, but exploited by Google and eventually everybody doing cloud and SaaS. It was of-course fueled by the emergence of 1G and soon 10G ethernet.

CMOS and multi layer metal (10+) became the norm. Multi-core was it as it nascent stages of creation and evolution. Apple was in the dumps but an iPOD was saving the bacon to eventually paved the way to an Phone and the emergence of ARM, eventuaally Samsung and TSMC as competitive foundries to Intel.

Personally, looking back my technical and professional learning and growth followed the same exponential as Moore’s law (A chart below to show). Starting from 1991 to 2003 – with the single chip SoC microprocessor (industry first and that too in CMOS) to 8 generations of SPARC culminating in the first dual core – spanning from 0.8uM to 90nm (roughly a decade) over a 10 year period.

Pinching myself to be lucky to have been at the right time , right place and right part of the Moore evolution.

This era was ended by dot-com bust and next wave of architectural simplification soon to follow (like RISC did to prior design styles back in 1984).

A few other technology innovations that should not be left out. FN tunneling i.e. Flash as technology was created in the late 1980s but found its way as a consumer portable media storage device (initially with the iPOD) and eventually into the enterprise.

A few notable things in this era.

EDA as a category and industry was formed (left today by Cadence and Synopsys)

OEM model was the dominant business model with licensed software as a business that depended on the OEM hardware. Separation of hardware and software from a business and GTM

Networking as a category as demonstrated by Cisco

Storage as a category as seen with EMC and NetApp with Flash finding its way over a 20 year period as key component of computing.

The browser as the presentation layer and the creation of systems of engagement, systems of intelligence and systems of record as the 3-layers of the enterprise stack.

Broadband witnessed hyper growth and innovcation in DSL, WiFi (OFDM).

It also saw the end of Mini computers (VAX/Digital), BiCMOS, GaAS, ECL/Bipolar, end of Japan’s dominance in memory.

Opensource came to existence to disrupt the prior models of Software distribution

In closing… Intel’s market cap rose and fell like most other dot-com companies.

It was peak Intel by 2003 and that 20 years later is being challenged.

Many (core) Moore (Part III computing Epoch)

Back to the past – This is part III of four part story of the computing epochs as punctuated by Moore’s law in which Intel had its imprint for obvious reasons.

This is the 2003-2020 Era, in which multi-core, Open source, Virtualization, cloud infrastructure, social networks all blossomed…The onset of it was the end of MHz computing (Pentium IV) to multi-core and throughput computing.

It was also the beginning of my end in semiconductors for a brief period (20 years) until I decided its time to get back in the 2020s…That was punctuated by the first multi-core CPUs (mainstream) that Sun enabled – famously known as Niagara family and of-course the lesser know is UltraSPARC IIe which has an interesting contrast to Intel’s Banias (back to Pentium).

Some would call it Web2 era or Internet 2 era…The dot-com bubble which blew a number of companies in the prior era (OEM era), paved the way for new companies to emerge, thrive and establish the new stack. Notably at the infrastructure level, Moore was well ahead with first multi-core CPUs enabling virtualization and accelerated the decline of other processor companies (SPARC, MIPS), system OEMs as the market shifted from buying capital gear to cloud and opex.

Semiconductors investments started to go out of fashion as Intel dominated and other fabs (TI, National, Cypress, Philips, ST and many more withered) leaving Intel and TSMC with an also-ran Global foundries. In the same period, architectural consolidation around x86 happened along with Linux, ARM emerged as the alternative for. a new platform (mobile) via Apple. Looking back it was the value shifting from vertical integration (fab + processors) to SoC and thus IP (ARM) became dominant despite many attempts by processor companies to get into mobile.

Convergent to the emergence of iPhone/Apple/ARM, was AWS EC2 and S3 and thus the beginning of cloud with Opex as the new buying pattern instead of capex. This had significant implication as a decade later that very shift to commodity servers and opex comes full circle via Graviton and TPU with the cloud providers going vertical and investing in silicon. Intel’s lead on technology enabled x86 to dominate and when that lead in technology both slowed thanks to Moore’s law and TSMC, the shift towards vertical integration by the new system designers (Amazon, Google, Azure).

Simultaneously, emergence of ML as an emerging and significant workload that demanded new silicon types (GPU/TPU/MPU/DPU/xPU) and programming middleware (TensorFlow and PyTorch) broke the shackles from Unix/C/Linux to new frameworks and new hardware and software stack at the system level.

Nvidia happened to be at the right time at the right place (one can debate if GPU is the right architectural design), but certainly the new category or the tea leaves for the new system which is a CPU + xPU seeds were sown by mid 2010s….

All of the shift towards hyper scale distributed systems was fueled by Opensource. Some say that Amazon made all the money by reselling open source compute cycles. Quite true. Open source emerged and blossomed with the cloud and eventually the cloud would go vertical and raises the question – Is open source a viable investment strategy especially for infrastructure. The death of Sun microsystems was led by open source and. the purchase of RedHat by IBM formed the bookends of Open Source as the dominant investment thesis by the venture community. While open source is still viable and continues to thrive, it’s not front and center as a disruptor or primary investment thesis by end of this era as many more SaaS applications took the oxygen.

We started with 130nm 10 layers of metal with Intel taking the lead over TI and IBM and ended with 10nm from TSMC taking. the lead over Intel. How did that happen? Volumes have been written on Intel’s mis-steps, but clearly the investment into 3DXpoint and trying to innovate or bet with new materials and new devices to bridge the memory gap did not materialize and distracted. Good idea and important technology gap need, but picking the wrong material stack distracted.

The companies that emerged and changed the computing landscape were VMware, Open Source (many), Facebook, Apple (Mobile), China (as a geography ). The symbiotic relationship between VMware and Intel is best depicted in the chart below.

Single core to dual socket multi-core evolution…

On networking front The transition from 10Gbps to 100Gbps (10x) over the past decade is one of the biggest transformation of networking adoption of custom silicon design principles.

Above chart shows the flattening of the OEM business while the cloud made the pie larger. OEMs consolidated around big 6 (Dell, HPE, Cisco, Lenovo, NetApp, Arista) and rest withered.

GPU/xPU emerged as a category and along with resurgence in semiconductor investments (50+ startups with $2.5+B of venture dollars). Generalization of xPU with a dual heterogenous socket (CPU + xPU) is becoming the new building blocks for a system, thanks to CXL as well. The associated evolution and implications for the software layer was discussed here.

We conclude this era with the shift from 3-tier enterprise (‘modern mainframe’) stack that was serviced by OEMs to distrbuted systems as implemented by the cloud providers where use case (e-commerce, search, social) drove the system design whereas technology (Unix/C/RISC) drove the infrastructure design in the prior era (a note on that is coming…)

In summary – Moore’s law enabled multi-core, virtualization, distributed systems, but its slowdown of growth opened the gates for new systems innovation and thus new companies and new stack including significant headwinds for Intel.

Lets revisit some of the famous laws by famous people…

  1. Original Moore’s law – (cost, density)

Bill Joy’s change it to Performance Scaling. Certainly slowing down and shift in performance moved to throughput over latency. Needs update for ML/AI era, as it demands both latency and throughput.

2.Metcalfe’s Law – Still around. See the networking section.

3.Wrights Law (demand and volume) – – this predates moore’s law and now applies to many more domains – battery, biotech, solar etc…

4.Elon’s law – (A new one…) – Optimal alignment of atoms and how close to that is your error. We are approaching that.

5.Dennard Scaling – Power limits are being hit. Liquid cooling is coming down the cost curve rapidly.

wrong tool

You are finite. Zathras is finite. This is wrong tool.

----- Thinking Path -------

"knowledge speaks but wisdom listens" Jimi Hendrix.

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