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It’s common knowledge that processor manufacturers such as AMD, IBM and Intel are moving away from the traditional quest for ever-faster clock speeds, not least because the technology to make air cooled processors that run at 5GHz appears to be a touch problematical. Intel’s Right Turn has led it away from a repetitive cycle of higher clock speed, smaller fabrication process, more memory cache, more transistors and repeat as necessary towards a world of dual core processors that borrows a fair amount of technology and design from the mobile Pentium M chip.

It is less obvious that the processor companies are also working to increase the features that are contained in your next CPU. I doubt that any of us would count support for 64-bit software as a feature as it was both predictable and inevitable, however AMD’s approach of supporting both 32-bit and 64-bit software natively with Opteron was a definite step forward, and it forced Intel to use the same technology which was a coup of sorts.

The next big new feature was the No Execute bit that Microsoft enabled in Windows XP SP2 as a hardware antivirus tool, albeit only resistant against certain very specific attacks. With hindsight AMD introduced another radical new technology in Opteron in the shape of the integrated memory controller. At the time it didn’t look particularly dramatic as the motherboard and processor looked quite conventional, and the only visual clue is that some Athlon 64 motherboards position the memory slots above the processor socket instead of beside the Northbridge of the chipset.

Now that nVidia supports both Pentium 4 and Athlon 64 with the nForce4 chipset we are able to do some fairly direct comparisons and the Intel solution looks far less elegant than the AMD chipset. The difference is that the Pentium 4 chipset has to include a memory controller, and as a result it is a traditional two chip chipset, which is a tautology but I don’t know how else to express it. We know from our experiences with nForce and nForce2 that nVidia is quite capable of making a decent memory controller so it comes as a surprise that nForce 4 for Pentium 4 runs incredibly hot. It’s really, really toasty and Lars has managed to burn himself on at least one example and wandered round with an MSI logo branded on his wrist for a few days afterwards.

Integrating the memory controller with the processor core has a disadvantage in that memory support is locked to both the processor and the motherboard, but the benefits include increased performance, neater designs and better thermal management so I for one can’t wait for AMD to include the Hyper Transport controller in future versions of Opteron and Athlon 64. In the meantime we’ll have to settle for multiple cores, AMD Presidio and Intel LaGrande security, as well as AMD Pacifica and Intel Vanderpool virtualisation technologies.

Over the next few years we’ll stop thinking of a PC or server as a single reservoir of computing with a processor, system memory and a hard drive and instead will start to regard each application as a separate computing environment. The first step is to use a conventional dual core processor which can divide its workload between ‘Windows’ in one core and ‘Other stuff’ in the second core. The result is that you can play music or write an email and can continue to do so even if your antivirus software decides to update itself or to run a scan. Dual core makes your PC run the way we’ve always been told PCs ought to work.

A quad core PC will do more of the same but virtualisation is a whole new ball game and effectively creates a virtual environment so that every function of your PC believes that it has exclusive control of the entire PC when in fact it is working away inside a slice of the processor.

Earlier this year Intel officially named its Vanderpool virtualization technology as Intel Virtualisation Technology (VT). It seems that the codename of Vanderpool stems from the Texan hamlet of the same name which has a population of 20 and has never had a reported crime. Glossing over the likelihood that any crimes in Vanderpool are settled with a shotgun and a shallow grave, the name shows that Intel regards VT as a way of quarantining every action that occurs inside your PC or server. If something goes wrong or a virus gets in the system then you kill that one problem with no possibility that it can spread to the rest of the system.

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