The Race for Microprocessor Leadership in Silicon Valley: Jan 7, 2013 IEEE Life Member Meeting in Mt View, CAJanuary 16th, 2013 by Alan Weissberger
The microprocessor changed what is now known as Silicon Valley from a mostly agricultural and defense electronics region into a center of innovation for many new technologies. How did that happen and what challenges were faced along the way?
This IEEE Life Member panel will discuss and debate the development of microprocessor technologies in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. We’ll examine the evolution of CISC (complex instruction set computing) and RISC (reduced instruction set computing) architectures and the battle for dominance in the commercial market place. The technological developments that lead to the creation of RISC architectures and the reaction of CISC suppliers to address this competitive threat will be covered. The role of architecture in today’s industrial and consumer markets will be discussed. The panel members will also share their views on the factors that lead up to the microprocessor architectural wars and the impact of microprocessor companies on Silicon Valley.
This panel session will be moderated by CHM CEO and President John Hollar, who will provide a brief introduction to the mission and accomplishments of the CHM.
The panel members and their former company affiliations:
*Anant Agrawal – SPARC chip designer at Sun Micro
*John Mashey- Software architect at MIPS
*Dave House- Marketing Director & later GM of Intel’s Microprocessor Division
Note: Uday Kapoor of Oracle helped organize and rehearse the panel session. He also made a video of the event for future playback on a website TBD.
Through John Hollar’s skilled moderation, the panelists revealed a lot of hitherto undisclosed information about microprocessor activities at Intel, Sun Micro and MIPS. The audience was thrilled to hear that information from primary sources who were there in the mid 1980s when the race between general purpose (CISC*) and reduced instruction set (RISC) microprocessors was heating up. John’s opening remarks about CHM progress has been previously published as a blog entry on this website.
* General purpose processor architecture is often referred to as Complex Instruction Set Computing, even though there are very few complex instructions. The term CISC is therefore somewhat of a misnomer. It was used to differentiate classical processor acrchitecture from Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC), where fewer instructions are available to be executed by the CPU.
John Mashey worked on memory management and exception handling – both to make MIPS chips run UNIX well, but also for embedded control requirements and applications. MIPs first shipped its RISC microprocessor chips and boards in Dec 1985. The company struggled to figure out whether they should sell chips, boards or packaged systems. In the end, they did all of them, plus software licensing. MIPs convinced three semiconductor companies to use their chips and got several systems companies to buy them. as well.
Sun Micro was a systems company that chose to make their own processor chip to give them a performance edge in the workstation (and later) server markets, according to Anant Agrawal. Processor performance from Motorola and other merchant microprocessor companies wasn’t sufficient for network computing, so Sun decided to design their own microprocessors. Faced with a very near term time to market, Anant designed the first SPARC processor chip based on gate array architecture. The initial SPARC design was a joint effort amongst system designers, logic designers, software engineers, and semiconductor process experts. The resulting SPARC performance gave Sun Micro a distinct price-performance advantage in the workstation market.
Dave House surprised few when he said, “Intel never really had the best microprocessor architecture.” Therefore, they needed a very wholistic strategy to dominate the microprocessor chip business. The complete LSI solution Intel offered included I/O and peripheral chips such as Clock, Interrupt and Direct Memory Access (DMA) controllers, as well as a serial communications controller (8251 USART). They also provided a popular development system, an In Circuit Emulator (ICE), and PL1/PLM compiler (to facilitate programming in high level languages rather than just assembly language). A very important early decision was to hire microproccessor savvy Field Application Engineers (FAEs) to offer superior technical support for Intel’s customers.
Once Intel microprocessors were designed into IBM PCs, Microsoft controlled Intel’s environment through their Operating System (DOS, Windows, etc), optimized compilers and other Microsoft software that ran on Intel chips. The two were partners with Intel Inside (the PC) and Microsoft providing the basic PC OS and support software (e.g. Microsoft Office). This was in sharp contrast to Sun Micro and MIPS which controlled the entire software stack.
As most folks know, Intel has always had the best semiconductor process in the world. That’s what enabled them to compete effectively, even when they didn’t have the best microprocessor chip architecture. Dave revealed that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Intel’s highly profitable EPROM business helped to fund the advances in their semiconductor process development.
Former Intel CEO Andy Grove (“only the paranoid survive”) kept the company strongly focused on problem solving and the competition. That enabled Intel to maintain their microprocessor leadership position after they got the IBM PC design win. Starting with the introduction of Windows in 1995, the Intel and Microsoft alliance was known as “Wintel” for such PCs and servers.
RISC Processors from Sun Micro and MIPS
Anant stated that Sun Micro became the leader in the workstation market in the mid 1980s. By the mid 1990s, Sun took the lead in servers as well. By the late 1990s, the SPARC microprocessor was able to manage and process large amounts of data. Sun was always thinking about how to best serve tomorrow’s customers, not just today’s. For example, they conceived and developed multi-core and multi-threaded processors by anticipating the need for higher performance CPUs. Despite Sun’s great systems solution built into their SPARC chips, the company struggled with semiconductor manufacturing (in sharp contrast to Intel).
MIPS was the smallest player in the microprocessor race, always worrying that Intel would come out with a competitive RISC chip. John Mashey ran competitive intelligence at MIPS. That unit was especially important, because as the smallest microprocessor maker, MIPS had to be especially alert to the competition.
John Mashey opined that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, “MIPS had a very good story.” That might have been due to the widely held belief that RISC-based systems would maintain a price/performance advantage over the ad-hoc Wintel system. In April of 1991, the Advanced Computing Environment (ACE) standardized on the MIPS architecture rather than Intel’s.
The ACE Consortium was started by Microsoft in an effort to create an alternative to Intel for Windows/NT and caused substantial concern there, especially as Compaq had joined. Combined with the usual difficulties of large consortia, when changes at Compaq caused it to drop out, ACE failed to gain market traction.
Based on today’s mobile computing requirements, moderator John Hollar asked, “Were low power processors around in the 1980s?
John Mashey was quick to reply that RISC chips had to be “lean,” with relatively low power consumption, even though that was not the early emphasis at MIPS . The company’s processors were used for applications that ran on UNIX, but also for real time communications tasks such as data networking. Major networking vendors, including Cisco Systems, adopted the 64-bit MIPS processors (the industry’s first) in the early 1990s. As a result, many of the 700M MIPS cores in 2011 were in networking applications and consumer devices.
[After the session, Dave and I agreed that Intel's CMOS technology played a very important role in the commercial success of their microprocessors in the late 1980s and onward. Two important characteristics of CMOS devices are high noise immunity and low static power consumption. Throughout the 1970s and early to mid 1980s, Intersil was the leading CMOS semiconductor maker. In 1987 Intel made the 80186 microprocessor using a CMOS process. The clock speed was increased up to 25MHz from the 10MHz maximum of the NMOS version of the 80186.]
John Hollar then asked, “When was the microprocessor race resolved?” Reference was made to the Intel 8085 vs Zilog Z80, then the 8086/8088 vs Moto 68000. But the more focused, implied question was how Intel responded to the competitive threat from RISC microprocessor makers.
Dave said that the Aug 1981 announcement of the Intel microprocessor (8088) inside the IBM PC was a watershed event. It created the “PC generation.”
Later, RISC architectures threatened Intel’s microprocessor dominance, with Wall Street and the ACE consortium thinking that RISC would win the race.
But what performance advantage did RISC actually have over general purpose microprocessors?
Intel microprocessor performance was doubling about every 18 months, so any RISC performance advantage was relatively short lived. Intel was able to increase performance of their micro’s by continuing to refine and develop their world class semiconductor process, especially Silicon Gate CMOS. And that IC process was the key to Intel maintaining their lead over RISC processor architectures and chips.
“Intel’s controlled silicon technology made them the winner in the PC generation,” Dave asserted. “Intel made 85% to 90% (profit) margins in their microprocessor business, so they could afford to spend $2B on a new waver fabrication plant,” he added.
Summing up, Dave stated that “Intel’s domination of the microprocessor business lasted a good 25 years (co-inciding with the PC era). We are now in the mobile computing era, where ARM chips are the leader.”
Anant said that SPARC was a success in making Sun Micro workstations and servers perform better than the competition and hence make the company a leader in those markets. In response to a question from this author regarding Sun selling SPARC chips on the merchant market, Anant candidly remarked, “Sun succeeded in the microprossor board business with SPARC, but not in the (microprocessor) chip business.”
John Mashey felt that MIPS succeeded in making software easier to run on their processor chips. MIPS had a strong heritage of input from compiler writers (based on MIPS use of word addressing), but improvements in chip architecture helped MIPS processors run a wide variety of operating systems very efficiently.
John Hollar’s last question was, “How did the microprocessor environment contribute to the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation that Silicon Valley is noted for?”
Dave replied that Intel gave 100% of its employees stock options, which caused them to have a financial stake in the company. That served to better align the interests of Intel employees with that of the company.
[Presumably, the stock price would rise if the employees worked hard to make Intel successful. More profits for Intel would lead to a higher stock price and financial rewards for stock option holders].
Anant said that the environment at Sun Micro was similar with options granted to all employees. Anant closed by saying, “Sun was the place to be if you were an engineer, marketer or a sales person. Sun attracted a lot of talent from all over USA, and actually from all over the world. They demonstrated leadership in workstations, then in servers, created Java and then muti-core, multi-threaded technologies for microprocessors. Sun grew from a very small company to over 44,000+ employees. This had a significant positive financial impact on Silicon Valley and enticed many talented IT professionals to move here.”
John Mashey said he thinks that stock options were important as well, but in many cases, people were attracted to MIPS by the “once-in-a-lifetime” chance to design a computer architecture and software that could be really important–perhaps a game changer in the IT industry.
With that, John Hollar wrapped up the panel session by thanking the participants and the audience. A great time was had by all!
The author thanks the panelists for their diligent review of this article and their clarifying comments. We especially thank CHM CEO John Hollar for agreeing to moderate this illuminating and important IEEE Life Member program. We hope there will be continuing collaboration between the CHM and IEEE.