Guest Opinion: The New Alliance of Microsoft-AMD-NVDIA?

By Nils Dahl

Date: September 25, 2001

There is a new team in town. No more Wintel. The partnership of Microsoft, AMD, and nVidia has been busy at work on a vast array of hardware products that are going to be tightly integrated with Microsoft's new operating system and its media services. This is Hailstorm - the XP project.

It is not coincidence that the next Athlon will be the Athlon XP.  nVidia's new Detonator drivers are now 'XP' level. The most peculiar appearance of a glue chipset from nVidia (nForce) links the new Microsoft system hardware design nicely to XBox and to several other secret projects that will be appearing real soon now. No, I don't have inside information. I just watch developments and make conclusions based on the working relationships between players.

More importantly, AMD has made more marketing changes than any sane firm should, delaying processor designs when such moves appeared to be damaging to their sales. Watch carefully as AMD's new designs favor Microsoft in this way.

From the viewpoint of a software giant, the most expensive part of the business is rewriting of one's entire line of products. Imagine Microsoft having to hand code all of its operating systems, applications, tools, and service code to make good use of a brand new processor design - say something like an Intel P4 - just to restore performance to reasonable levels. Makes no sense and could severely damage revenues over the short term.

Enter AMD, a firm that vowed to provide a superior alternative to the pentium line - and is doing so. This design decision heavily favors the existing software world, particularly Microsoft and its brand new os.

What could Intel do to combat the hijacking of 'its industry standard design' by Microsoft? Make an alliance with ATI and produce an integrated chipset that is decent - a nice change in attitude but rather late when compared to the Microsoft/nVidia/AMD project.

nForce introduces Hypertransport, adds special caching to enhance processor performance, adds interleaved main memory to the already fast ddr sdram memory design, and offers world class media file processing support in hard logic. such a complex chipset design could only have been done if Microsoft was working intimately with nVidia to develop a compatible design based on full knowledge of the inner workings of Intel glue. nForce represents an innovative new system architecture that nobody else can match. All the other players, including Intel, can only enhance existing designs.

More importantly, nForce and its XBox chipset variation represent a new Microsoft standard media platform that is fully DirectX supported - while everyone else plays catch up. Microsoft can, and likely has, build into Windows XP all the support for nForce that normally comes as separate packages from multiple hardware vendors (video card firms, sound card firms) and is so tedious to debug and support properly with low level drivers. nForce is likely just a first step in a new line of superior integrated solutions that Microsoft and AMD are planning to introduce as enhancement for brand new AMD processor designs.

Example. Remove the fancy audio logic from nForce and improve the processor caching subsystem to match clawhammer, making a very fine single processor server design that has a faster memory subsystem than Xeon systems from Intel - at far lower cost. If AMD is still making Athlons at its Texas fab on 0.18 micron processor, what is Dresden's new 0.13 micron line being used for? Maybe next generation Athlon XP chips based on 0.13 micron rules or maybe samples of the new clawhammer design that fits into new server market plans by Microsoft.

So I am predicting a Hailstorm of new hardware designs that offer total support for Windows XP Home's new media features AND than run this new os quite efficiently - far more efficiently than any mass market Intel design of the past or present can do. Intel has consistently downgraded system performance with such design mistakes as i820 (single channel rdram, very slow), i815 and i815e (garbage), and i845 (more garbage) in order to limit the main memory performance of mass market computers. This is just what Microsoft cannot tolerate when its entire marketing program is based on a far more complex commercial operating system that needs faster 'everywhere'.

Microsoft has made a token effort to hand Intel an olive branch. there are reports that a P4 version of nForce exists and works - but it uses that ultra-fast interleaved ddr sdram main memory design that Intel wants to keep off the market. Intel is still trying to lock up main memory designs via Rambus suits. Its all about control - and future profits from licensing.

The only firm that has been using interleaved main memory designs for years is Apple. It is this feature that is so helpful for Macintosh desktop systems that do intensive work on huge image files. Editing a 200 megabyte image scan in main memory is so much faster than paging parts of the image from a hard drive that Apple still holds onto certain niche markets quite nicely. Interleaved memory goes back some 8 years or more at Apple (models 660AV, 880AV, 950). nForce is the very first offering in the 'industry standard' world of Intel that uses interleaving. Neat.

The game is all about marketing and market perception. Intel wants to maintain low performance levels in all mass market designs and use this as a lever for regular hardware upgrades that sell more Intel product. Thus we often have seen new processors matched to new memory subsystem designs - all proceeding in tiny steps forward. Intel wants to make and sell 'big iron' at huge price premiums. The P4 is Intel's introduction to hyperthreading that will become a standard in its new 64-bit processor designs. But Intel picked the wrong time to try forcing an entire market to throw away its systems and buy new stuff. Microsoft needed a solid installed base of high performance systems to sell Windows XP Home in the mass market. At present, only the nForce architecture promises to give home users a satisfactory XP experience.

So watch for Microsoft tie-ins with nForce systems and XBox as the Windows XP marketing program gears up. You may even see nVidia offering its slower 220 nForce chipset to firms that make simpler, slower processors - as an ideal package for far lower cost designs for third world markets where intensive videogame marketing makes no sense. I expect to see VIA licensing nForce technologies next year and other firms joining in to form a consortium that overwhelms Intel's mediocre system designs.

Me? I'm just an old man, a computer hobbyist now. I cut my teeth on pc architecture with articles in BYTE magazine (Ciarcia's Circuit Cellar PC). Heck, Steve Ciarcia lives a few miles from me - but we have never met and likely never will. I dislike Steve's business attitudes. I like to figure out how things work and then ask WHY the design was done in a particular way. I was into reading up on CP/M systems when the computer market was so fragmented that every brand of computer had its own file format and was incompatible with all the others. I have been ignored in the best computer stores. My favorite microprocessor of all time is the TMS 9900, that most curious realtime controller that turned into the heart of the TI 99/4 and 99/4A systems of years ago. And every now and then, I chuckle over Intel's ancient IAXP 432, wondering if Microsoft chose to name its new OS in a sort of mockery of that processor of years ago. IAXP 432 was going to be a mainframe node used in massively parallel systems running ADA for government work. Gee, nobody talks about ADA these days either. Ask you older friends in the business about that language.

Classic computer designs of the past (ask if anyone knows anything about them) - The Pensee PASCAL Microengine and Lilith. Not really Wirth much but amusing. Both predate the Xerox STAR system by a bit.

Anyway, I've spoken my piece. Major changes are coming real soon. Intel is going to lose its grip on chipset designs and thus lose the processor race. There is plenty of room for revival of many simpler processors of the past - if they are made using modern production lines and run cool at high speeds. Third world countries cannot afford heatsink/fan cooling and processors that burn out easily. Combine the new design concepts of nForce with a modest older design and you get a very nice computer - likely far faster than my old pentium 133 box. But the determining factor in the emerging computer design world will be marketing clout. Only Microsoft has a highly visible worldwide marketing capability.

nForce is the first ideal solution for slotless sealed boxes and for expandable designs of any kind. Hailstorm covers software and hardware.


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