Opinion: Intel is facing increasing and unprecedented competition on all fronts, so how does it ensure its legacy and keep its place at the top table.
For the past few years, personal computer sales have been declining across the board. Every major vendor has been reporting declining sales and, in addition, the sales that vendors are seeing are increasingly shifting to lower end computers. The consumer priority has been shifting toward increasing battery life and increasing portability rather than toward more performance.
Also during this period, Intel has had some difficulties ramping up its new 14nm FinFET process, leading to cancelling desktop Sky Lake processors, leaving the high-end the older Haswell processors.
Exacerbating this is the fact that the main difference between Haswell and Sky Lake is an enhanced floating point, adding support for a fused multply-add instruction (FMA) originally made famous in Apple's benchmarketing efforts while promoting Altivec. The main improvements that Kaby Lake brings to the table are lower power consumption and a better GPU when compared to Sky Lake.
While this has been going on, AMD and nVidia have continued to make major upgrades to their GPUs; unlike the shift from Haswell to Sky Lake and Kaby Lake, nVidia added a huge performance boost, in addition to significantly lower power consumption with Pascal, its update to Maxwell. The difference is large enough that it's actually both more cost-effective and a larger upgrade to replace a 900 series nVidia GPU with a 1000 series GPU.
Topping this off is the external GPU pioneered by Razer; taking advantage of Thunderbolt 3, the Razer Core allows a user to add a desktop GPU to a laptop externally. This enables even Razer's smallest and lightest ultrabook, the Razer Blade Stealth, to offer desktop class GPU performance.
The ARM Factor
It's no secret that ARM is eating Intel's mobile lunch. Intel has made a number of attempts to get its processors into mobile devices, but it has yet to compete effectively with the vast ARM ecosystem, which is now competing with and, in some cases, even eclipsing the performance of Intel's low-end desktops. With Samsung using a 14nm FinFET process to manufacture its latest Exynos processors, it's becoming clear that Intel is losing its fabrication technology advantage. On top of that, ARM is designed to be power efficient – it has a large edge over x86 in the ultramobile space.
With modern ARM processors sporting as many as eight cores, dedicated floating point hardware in some higher end models including vector processing units, integrated GPUs with tile-based rendering and even 64-bit addressing, it's not hard to see why Intel's Atom hasn't made much of a foothold.
Even Microsoft has been doing some experimenting using ARM processors to build high-density server farms. Qualcomm, for example, is developing an ARM-based System on a Chip (SOC) based on ARM, including in its initial prototypes 24 cores, with plans for more cores in the future. Performance wise, Intel's Xeon still has a significant edge over ARM, but it's starting to look like ARM is getting within spitting distance. With companies like Broadcom and Qalcomm, as well as AMD and several Chinese cores in design like Phytium (all aimed at exascale datacenters the likes of Google, Amazon, Baidu, and Facebook), it certainly seems like ARM has the potential to shake the server industry up the same way that Intel did with the Pentium Pro. AMD has launched its Seattle core, a new Opteron processor, also aimed at servers.
It could also end up being pushed out of the market before really breaking in by the OpenPOWER initiatiave along with AMD and Intel. It's too early to say for sure.
One thing is for sure, however: ARM isn't down and out, despite not making any headway in the datacenter market so far. It is, however, making some inroads into supercomputing, with none other than Cray announcing an ARM based supercomputer design called Isambard for the UK Met Office, featuring over 10,000 64-bit ARM cores.