x86 at 30: Patrick Gelsinger chief architect for the 80486 chip

Intel's Patrick Gelsinger tells what is was like to witness the birth of x86, how much things have changed since its conception, and what might happen next


What is the "software spiral"?

The day before we introduced the 80486, we already had billions of dollars worth of software waiting to run on the chip. When we introduced it, [Intel CEO] Andy Grove made this powerful statement about the "software spiral."

The idea of the spiral was, we'd introduce hardware that was faster than the software and then allow the software to catch up, which requires the hardware to jump ahead again. So software begets hardware, hardware enables software, and that spiral is really what's been driving the industry for many, many years.

It seems that that concept still holds, with multi-core chips now available but without a lot of software that can run on more than one processor at a time.

Exactly. I'd say we have made a new turn in the spiral, which is the move to multi-core.

When did Intel realise that the game was up for processor clock-speed improvements and that the future lay in multi-core processors?

I was chief technology officer for Intel in 2001, and I published a paper that became known as "the power wall" paper. It had this graph, which became famous, that plotted the thermal density, how much power we were trying to squeeze into a given area of silicon, and it showed that our chips would have the thermal density equal to a nuclear reactor or to the surface of the sun. It showed that the trajectory we were on was not sustainable. We needed to make what became known inside Intel as the right-hand turn.

There were huge debates internally over the data, whether we could continue on the curve we were on, whether there were cooling systems that would allow us to continue and so on. And people said, "Hey, if we aren't in the gigahertz race, where are we? Our competition will build gigahertz chips, and the market has been conditioned to see that as a better chip." So there were technical reasons and market reasons why there was tremendous resistance to the argument.

What does the future hold for the x86?

I gave a speech at the Intel Developer Forum in Shanghai. I included a picture of the Monkey King, which in China had a very powerful tool, the golden stick. It could be as small as a needle or as big as a pillar that held up the sky.

In my speech, "From Milli Watts to Peta FLOPS," I made the analogy that, like the Monkey King that had the golden stick, we had the architecture that will grow up to be the biggest things on Earth, petaflops computers, and also the smallest computers on earth.


Name: Patrick P. Gelsinger
Title: Senior vice president and co-general manager, Digital Enterprise Group
Company: Intel
Most interesting thing people don't know about him: He lives a very active Christian life and is author of Balancing Your Family, Faith & Work (Life Journey, 2003)
First job: Technician for WFMZ radio/TV in Allentown and late-night DJ for radio. He also worked at his uncle's dairy and race horse farms as a kid. "I knew much more about cow chips than computer chips when I started at Intel."
Favourite vice: Drinking too much coffee. "Starbucks venti skinny latte, please."
Ask him to do anything but: Plumbing
Last book read: The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, by Alan Greenspan
Best movie ever: Chariots of Fire
Three or four people he'd love to invite for dinner together: Margaret Thatcher, Andy Grove and Jack Welch. If not limited by time, Jefferson, Gandhi and Churchill.

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