Sustainable CPUs: The “Empire” vs. the “Federation”

There was a very interesting article in a recent issue of The Economist Magazine, Jan 7th, 2012:

Space invaders

America’s Intel and Britian’s ARM have long dominated different bits of the global chip market. Now each is attacking the other’s stronghold

In the article, US-based Intel, which dominates the market for desktop CPUs, is compared to British ARM, which creates low-power RISC-processors for mobile devices.

Intel is characterized as a “soup to nuts” company, which handles design and manufacture of all its chips in-house. This has created uniformity in Intel CPU designs, and has also help “lock” software manufacturers into a specific architecture. It also led Intel to try to make the so-called “Moore’s Law” real – until recently, their chips optimized speed at the expense of other features, in particular power consumption. By the mid 2000s, the fastest chips were using so much power (well in excess of 100w in an area much smaller than a postage stamp) that heating became a bottleneck. Hence, the liquid cooling required on ex-treme “gamer computers, along with their massive power supplies (some high-end rigs have 1500 watt power supplies to power the bus plus multiple videocards).

In contrast, ARM is not a monolithic company, Instead of the Intel empire, it is the “Federation” – the center of a ecosystem of companies developing designs based of the ARM architecture. ARM doesn’t own any chip foundaries – instead it licenses its designs to groups who build the chips. According to the article, ARM uses “collective insights” from its numerous array of partners to design useful chips, and those companies then design their devices with ARM architecture in mind. This includes groups manufacturing mobile devices, as well as graphics processors and ‘systems on a chip’ for smartphones.

Instead of just speed, the ARM has multiple goals – and one big goal is to minimize power consumption. An ARM-based web server might use 1/10 the power of current servers, while giving only slightly on performance. It’s a trade-off between several competing goals, rather than relentless optimization of a single goals.

A mobile smartphone uses even less power compared to the desktop to render an equivalent web page, or an equivalent user experience.

I think the difference between the companies goes beyond choices on power consumption. In my opinion, Intel’s single-minded pursuit of speed was related directly to its monolithic structure. ARM’s efforts within its company ecosystem led t0 – surprise! an ecosystem of low-powered chips which currently have 95% of the market share in mobiles.

How does this tie to sustainability? Sustainable systems typically are made of many players, loosely connected. This makes the system as a whole more flexible and adaptable. In the case of chips, a huge variety of designs have been worked out for a plethora of mobile architectures. In contrast, the Intel world looks like a field of corn in Iowa – stalks all of one kind, engineered so that they all lean in exactly the same direction for closer planting. Intel is industrial agriculture, while ARM is a mixed-used field. With optimization for low-power, ARM seems ideally placed for a world in which the energy consumed by computers and the Internet can no longer be ignored.

Here is my question: Is the decision to make low-powered devices – optimizing speed AND energy consumption – a product of the company architecture. Could we ever have imagined Intel going in this direction, replacing their one-note pursuit of Moore’s laws between the 1970s and early 2000s? Should companies who want to institute sustainability in their practices follow ARM rather than Intel?

ARM’s structure also resembles the open-source software movement. Again, there is a bit of chaos (just as mobile architectures are wildly variable) but the software shows the same flexibility and rapid adaptation to the virus-laden Internet ecosystem.

One might even compare ARM versus Intel to the current trends in HTML5 and JavaScript apps. On one hand, we have systems like JQuery (big and getting bigger all the time) with one way to do things. For every thing that could be coded in JS, there will be a JQuery JS way of doing it. The advantage is that a non-codebeast designer can learn the system (the way they learn Photoshop). The disadvantage is code-bloat, and a reduced understanding of how the web works. In the last few months, we’ve seen lots of micro-libraries show up to replace parts of JQuery, and this seems more like a Federation opposing the JQuery (as it opposed the Flash) monolith. I imagine some companies will try to standardize on the big, integrated libraries and avoid dropping down into a messy collection of small libraries. However, as I’m postulating, the small, messy networked system might naturally tend more to saving energy and resources, like physical ecosystems do.

Finally, if there is ever an “Internet of Things” – every lightbulb with an IP address – it seems likely that the decentralized approach is more likely to bear fruit. Networking the physical world is a type of control, analogous to building dams and roads, overriding the “natural” order. Today, “sustainable” design in the physical world emphasizes fault-tolerant network-like design. An ARM-style world of chips is more likely to create a real “Internet of things”, as opposed to “one chip to rule them all”, top-down imposition of a standard network built from a few parts.

The counter-argument to this is the arrival of new standards like HTML5. One one hand, it is one system, and seems to act like an Empire. Certainly, it is crushing its rivals – everything from Flash to old game engines (both Unity and Unreal Engine have drunk the HTML5 kool-aid now). On the other hand, HTMl5 was developed by a loose Federation, rather than an integrated Empire. Even Microsoft, the poster-child for the Empire in the 1980s and 1990s, has embraced it in a big way. Microsoft has also loosened its tie to the Wintel world – new version of Windows and Windows Mobile will not be “Intel only” as has been true for so long.

Maybe the best way to build a sustainable system is a layer cake – alternating bits Federation with alternating Empire overlays.  In any case, it will be extremely interesting to watch Intel try to invade ARM’s territory in mobiles over the next few years. I’m looking forward to super-green hosts using low-power CPUs as a result. I’m also looking forward to the parallel battles between big integrated HTML5/JS/CSS frameworks versus small, decentralized development of  small frameworks which allow energy consumption in web apps to be optimized.

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