Know Your Chips

Denis Bredelet
5 min readSep 19, 2022
Credit: beebom.com

Intel Inside. Chances are, your computer features a sticker proclaiming it. Since the rise of the personal computer, the American company partnered with Microsoft and, initially, with IBM to take over the market. As a result, the majority of PCs in the world are powered by an Intel chip. But there are other companies who could take the crown.

1. AMD

Thanks to cross-licensing with Intel, this alternative chip designer sells compatible processors which, often, outperform their Intel counterparts. That is in part thanks to Intel manufacturing arm having fallen behind the competition.

In addition to its processors business, AMD is well established in the graphics space where it competes with Nvidia to sell GPUs for games, 3D work and machine learning. Intel has just started entering the graphics market; it will be interesting to see if it can establish itself next to the existing players.

2. Apple

Recently Apple stunned the personal computer world by moving away from Intel, choosing to develop their own processors based on iPhone chips instead. These chips are not Intel-compatible but Apple includes translation software in macOS to run existing programs.

The main characteristics of Apple Silicon, as it is named, derive from its mobile processor origins: it is efficient (requires less power to do the same work) and it is a System on a Chip (SoC), integrating general purpose, graphics and inference (machine learning) cores with peripheral and memory controllers in the same package.

To improve both performance and efficiency, Apple packs a lot of transistors in their chip design, a choice afforded by its manufacturing partners. That allows the processor to handle a lot of instructions in parallel and finish processing them quickly, then return to its default low-power state as soon as possible.

There are normally limits on the number of instructions a processor can run in parallel, particularly because of data or resource dependencies. But with its exceptional transistor count, Apple Silicon is able to extract more parallel instructions from the pipeline than competitors.

Although it is not compatible with Intel chips Apple Silicon is compatible with another important family of chips: the ARM family. ARM is extremely common in embedded systems (“Internet of Things” and other invisible computer brains, such as in phones, cameras and cars). It is also getting popular due to low cost in cloud platforms: Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud offer it as an option to their customers.

3. IBM

Personal computers are no longer the target of the company. In the server space, IBM continues producing processors in the POWER family. The latest offering is Power10 which has unique memory connectivity capabilities, opening it up to new applications with the speed and flexibility it permits.

Like Apple Silicon, the Power10 processor can handle a large number of instructions at once. It also has an increased focus on power efficiency compared to its predecessors. The POWER family is incompatible with most other chips, however its instructions are well-known and it benefits from a large software base.

4. Cerebras

This company is also unlikely to feature on your PC any time soon. Their main product is a chip, the largest of its kind, designed specifically for machine learning and artificial intelligence. Thanks to its sheer size and unique design it gives quicker answers to AI problems than other solutions.

5. Tachyum

This start-up promises a “Universal Processor” named Prodigy which is well-suited to tackle various workloads that would usually be split to different processing units. It uses a limited set of components, only packaged in a way which optimises for low latency and low power losses (hotspots). Like Apple Silicon and Power10, it relies on running many instructions in parallel on many cores for better performance.

The initial design was centred around VLIW (very long instruction word) bundles and a compiler-ordered pipeline, but that evolved in favour of more flexible conventional cores and a hardware-based out-of-order pipeline. Thanks to its design choices the company expects to reach very high clock speeds which will allow the Prodigy to easily outperform Intel chips.

6. Mill Computing

Around year 2013, word spread of a new processor architecture destined to replace existing processors with a clean-sheet design. The Mill replaces traditional register files, which store intermediary results, with “The Belt” to greatly reduces complexity in both the instruction set and the chip logic.

According to the company the Mill is also very secure. There is no leakage of information between separate processes, unlike traditional processors.

All the promise of the Mill has so far resulted in a number of patents and talk of a FPGA implementation which would validate the architecture. In a post, the company reveals that it had planned its conversion from a small team of inventors to a production-ready operation in March 2020. The timing came head to head with the COVID-19 pandemic and the conversion did not happen.

We are waiting to see what comes out of the project; hopefully the dynamic can be revived.

7. RISC-V International

Unlike the others, RISC-V International is a non-profit organisation. Its goal is to promote the use of an open, royalty-free architecture for processors, much in the same way that GNU Linux did for operating systems.

This is not “vapourware”. RISC-V designs are already in use in shipping products, in particular for embedded use. The architecture is gathering a lot of interest notably in China, and the NASA is thinking of using it into space.

Like the ARM family, the RISC-V family was designed for low-power applications (it borrows from MIPS). But the organisation defines various extensions which are also open and royalty-free to address different use cases, extending the usefulness of the design.

Whereas there could be question marks regarding the future of chips backed by a single company, there is little doubt that RISC-V is headed for success. The only real question is whether we will see “RISC-V Inside” stickers on personal computers in the future.

Today, Intel is not the only name in town when it comes to giving brains to our PCs, devices, appliances and surroundings. Some promising technologies may not survive; others will replace them.

I hope this article gives a good overview of the names to watch in the next few years, depending on where your interests lie.

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