CAD Tech News (#134)

17 Sep, 2020 By: Cadalyst Staff

Herrera on Hardware: Two New CPUs Will Open More Options for the CAD Workstation Platform

Lenovo builds around AMD's Threadripper PRO processor, while Intel ships the first fruits of Xe graphics and SuperFin technology.

By Alex Herrera

The typical workstation serving CAD professionals sees a few significant upgrades every year, with some being more impactful than others. Sometimes it's a new central processing unit (CPU) that plugs into an existing socket, other times it's a graphics processing unit (GPU) successor based on a new architectural generation, and occasionally it's a complete overhaul, with a ground-up redesign incorporating a completely new platform and components.

With respect to CPUs, we've seen Intel release both its 10th generation Core processors targeting fixed machines (mobile-tailored 10th generation versions were released in the second half of 2019), as well as just this month, the first 11th Gen Core products targeting mobiles. But for once, all the action wasn't limited to the Intel universe — AMD not only launched its first professional-specific workstation processor in over a decade, but saw it picked up by a top-tier workstation supplier to boot.

Intel's Tiger Lake Leverages SuperFin Technology

Let's start by taking a look at the mobile-focused part. Perhaps it's never been more appropriate to talk mobile workstation CPUs first, as 2020 has seen all laptops — commercial, consumer, and CAD-tailored mobile workstations — surge in sales, measured not only relative to shipments of fixed/desktop models but in absolute terms as well. In the third quarter of 2020, for example, mobile workstation sales climbed by 20% year-over-year, while fixed workstations declined 15%, according to Jon Peddie Research. The reason is obvious: The push to adopt work-from-home and remote schooling setups clearly favors the mobile platform.

Intel's first release to market under the 11th Generation Core i7/i5/i3-11xxG branding, codenamed "Tiger Lake," is notable for two engineering advancements — one in process technology and the other in graphics architecture. Over the past four decades, the vast majority of generation-to-generation improvements in the semiconductor industry have come courtesy of Moore's Law, the principle laid down by Intel founder Gordon Moore that essentially observed that silicon density (and therefore, cost per transistor) grows at a geometric rate, doubling steadily over time. It's been such a powerful tool that, directly or indirectly, one could argue it's the foundation of our entire technology ecosystem today. Where would we be if transistors required as much space, power, and expense as they did back in the 1970s?

As Moore's Law butts up against atomic and quantum physics limits and progress slows, vendors are focusing more and more on architectural and packaging improvements to provide some of the incremental improvements process shrinks alone would achieve. Still, pushing down the Moore's Law path of silicon shrinks remains the primary means for all chip vendors to create compelling new products promising better performance, lower cost, decreased power usage, or some combination of the three.

For decades, in fact, it had been Intel's most formidable weapon. That's all changed, however, as at this point, most are aware of Intel's struggles over the past few years in moving its process road map forward. Its 10-nanometer (nm) node was painfully late to production, and most recently the company had to announce it was pushing out its 7-nm process to the latter half of 2021.

Given that, the company's announcement of its SuperFin technology — which combines a few significant achievements in transistor and interconnect structures — couldn't have come at a better time. Intel promises SuperFin can achieve much of what a Moore's Law process step would, yet it retains the same core 10-nm process density. SuperFin may not improve density, but it still directly serves two of the ultimate goals — performance and/or power — evidence of the fact that process dimensions alone do not singularly equate to superiority, especially when net-ed out to a single number, like the "10" in 10 nm.

By virtue of an enhanced transistor and interconnect electrical characteristics, SuperFin substantially improves the performance/power characteristics of its 10-nm process. We won't get into the esoterics of SuperFin technology, but in short, it yields a significantly more efficient transistor which can be leveraged either as a higher-performing transistor at a constant voltage or a lower-power transistor at lower voltage. That spread in usage is common in process advancements, and helps the technology be exploited across different product priorities and applications, from low-power mobile to max-performance desktop or datacenter.

The SuperFin transistor: enhancements add up to higher performance and/or improved power efficiency. Image source: Intel.
The SuperFin transistor: enhancements add up to higher performance and/or improved power efficiency. Image source: Intel.

SuperFin will provide some relief to the company that's going to have to ride its 10-nm process for significantly longer than planned. How much does SuperFin help? Well, Intel positions it as responsible for the "largest intranode performance delta in our history" and "comparable to a full-node transition." From another perspective, 11th Generation Tiger Lake on the 10-nm SuperFin process manages a base frequency up to 3.0 GHz at 28 W (thermal design power), while 10th Generation Ice Lake managed up to 2.3 GHz on the pre-SuperFin 10-nm process at nearly the same microarchitecture. So, all else being equal, SuperFin translates to significant improvements in both single- and multi-thread throughput. Read more »

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Alex Herrera is a consultant focusing on high-performance graphics and workstations.


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About the Author: Cadalyst Staff

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