Smaller design teams needed for multicore era

Intel can avoid future road map detours by shrinking the size of its chip design teams, an analyst said Monday.

Some of the early successes of the nascent multicore processor era have come from relatively small design teams, and the world's largest chip company should follow suit and pare down its teams to fend off upstarts and deliver more user-friendly products, according to analysts from In-Stat/MDR.

Kevin Krewell, editor-in-chief of In-Stat/MDR's The Microprocessor Report, said Monday he was worried about Intel's ability to produce industry-leading designs with large teams that operate very close to the company's marketing professionals.

"The problem with Intel's chip design teams is that they are too damn big," Krewell said during a seminar kicking off the Spring Processor Forum in San Jose, California. "Smaller design teams, more focused and more isolated from some of the politics, can be more effective."

Intel's most successful project of the last three years, the Pentium M, was designed by a relatively obscure group of talented Intel engineers in Israel, led by the head of Intel's Mobile Platforms Group, Mooly Eden, Krewell said. When it was first proposed and developed in the early part of this decade, it was a markedly different design from Intel's main design strategy of increasing clock speed to drive processor performance.

In an interview earlier this year, Eden said that the original Pentium M design ran counter to Intel's conventional wisdom and might not have had the same chance of emerging from Intel's U.S. design labs, which were seen as traditional and more closely tied to management and marketing.

Intel competitor Advanced Micro Devices produced the Opteron processor, currently giving Intel's server group its strongest competition in years, out of a design team that numbered around 50 to 60 engineers, Krewell said. By contrast, Intel uses hundreds of engineers on design projects, and individual engineers are portioned out to small pieces of the design. This increases the chances that designers will lose sight of the overall design philosophy of the chip, he said.

An Intel spokeswoman said the company's design teams range in size depending on the scope of the project, and she declined to estimate the average size of an Intel design team. Most of Intel's 87,000 employees are involved in manufacturing in one way or another, she said.

Two years ago, Intel planned to release extremely fast single-core desktop and server processors around the middle of this year. However, those projects, code-named Tejas and Jayhawk, were abruptly canceled in 2004 amid concerns about the engineering challenges necessary to overcome the thermal limitations of the architecture for those chips.

Instead, Intel decided to accelerate its dual-core designs and was forced to use its Pentium 4 processor as the base for its first dual-core chips, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst with In-Stat/MDR. This has resulted in a stop-gap design that is expected to tide Intel's customers over until 2007, when dual-core chips based on a new power-friendly architecture are expected to be released, he said.

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