Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sandy Bridge and Thunderbolt

There is an old saying that you can't be too thin or too rich. I would add a software engineering axiom to that list and include "or too fast." Fast processors can cover a wealth of software sins. As the complexity of modern software increases, we have been saved by the continual improvement in processor speed. When we approached the maximum clock rate limited by the laws of physics, the smart chip designers added multi-core and parallel processing. Since modern software is highly graphics oriented, improvements in the graphics processing chip or GPU have also contributed to these speed-up improvements.

Now Intel has raised the bar with the introduction of Sandy Bridge, a new graphics processor and central processor combination. Sandy Bridge is the codename for the processor architecture developed by Intel as the successor to Nehalem. Based on the 32 nm process, development began in 2005 at Intel's Israel Development Center (IDC) in Haifa.

Processors based on this architecture are marketed as the second generation of Core i processors and were announced on January 3, 2011. Sandy Bridge processors will be available from January 9, 2011 and onwards depending on market segment. The new Apple Macbook Pro line announced today will include Sandy Bridge.

Sandy Bridge processors are up to 17% faster clock-for-clock compared to Nehalem processors. Its integrated graphics provides around twice the performance of Westmere's, Intel's previous performance leader (dual core).

Add to that, Thunderbolt, which is a new I/O technology that surpasses the previous speed record of USB 3.0 by a factor of two.

Thunderbolt offers 10Gbps throughput in both directions, this makes it 12x faster than FireWire 800 and up to 20x faster than USB 2.0. USB 3.0 operates at a maximum of 5Gbps, therefore Thunderbolt is twice as fast as the previous speed record holder. The graphic with this note includes a comparison chart of various PC interfaces as well as a picture of the Thunderbolt port and the icon or logo.

One other major advantage Thunderbolt has over USB 3.0 is the fact that the two 10Gbps channels allow you to daisy-chain devices. Also, as Thunderbolt is based on PCI Express and DisplayPort, you can link to a HDTV without the use of a hub and without any reduction in performance. High Definition 3D anyone? No problemo.

It has to be said that this could be a major game-changer especially for video, music and photo editors, let’s just hope that Thunderbolt compliant devices and cables do not cost too much. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that ...

As an example of pricey hardware, Apple announced its new updated MacBook Pro line today, and some of the good news included both of these new technologies which will make the Apple laptop a real speed demon. Because I do a lot of video recording direct to disk using portable computers, it is essential to me that Apple continue to offer a firewire on their laptops. (So far there has been no movement in the video camera technology to leave firewire for some other kind of digital video interface.)

Thunderbolt was previously called "Light Peak" by Intel and was designed for optical fiber. The early release is copper, but the architecture can support speeds up to 100 GBps. So this is an interface with a great upside. My dad used to say that the two kinds of screwdrivers, slotted and phillips, were one too many. The crowded interface market is rapidly becoming overpopulated, but the winning interface will likely elbow the others aside. For now, expect top-end computers to include USB, Firewire, and Thunderbolt. At least that is what I'm hoping. Let the best interface win!

So, technology continues to march forward. I remember when I got my first PS/2, a model 80, and loaded up WordPerfect. It seemed like greased lightning, albeit entirely in monochrome on the elegant IBM green screen monitor. Ah, those were the days. Bonneville salt flats, here I come. Land speed records will fall.

Originally written on February 24, 2011.

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