From Monolithic to Heterogeneous: The Evolution of CPU Design

In recent months, you may have come across the term “heterogeneous cores” in the context of Intel processors. However, understanding what this means and how it differs from traditional monolithic processor designs can be a bit challenging. This article aims to simplify the concept and explain the transition from monolithic to heterogeneous processors, including how ARM‘s big.LITTLE architecture influenced this evolution.

monoliticos vs heterogeneos

Understanding Monolithic Processors

Historically, processors featured a single core, and the first multi-core processor for consumers was the Intel Core2Duo, introduced in 2011, with just two cores. Today, we have processors with up to 16 cores or more for various applications. The term “monolithic” refers to the design of these processors, where all cores have the same architecture and size within the processor’s DIE, not necessarily their physical size or power.

ARM’s big.LITTLE Architecture

ARM, a company known for designing cores used in smartphone processors, faced a challenge. They wanted to increase core counts without significantly impacting battery life. Their solution was the big.LITTLE architecture, a hybrid processor design that combines high-efficiency cores with high-performance cores. Efficiency cores handle lighter tasks like browsing, while performance cores kick in for demanding activities such as gaming or video editing.

Intel’s Adoption of Heterogeneous Cores

Intel adopted a similar approach by hiring Jim Keller, a key figure behind AMD‘s Ryzen architecture. Intel’s heterogeneous processors feature two types of cores:

  • E-Cores: High-efficiency cores that remain active during light workloads and offer power-saving advantages. They provide support to P-Cores when needed.
  • P-Cores: High-performance cores that activate during heavy workloads, such as gaming or content creation, delivering robust processing power.

AMD’s Transition with Zen Architecture

While AMD has yet to release heterogeneous processors, they have begun transitioning with their Zen architecture. They achieved this by dividing cores into separate DIEs and connecting them with a control chip. Key components of this architecture include:

  • CCX: A block comprising four cores, with two CCX units in each DIE.
  • CCD: Each DIE consists of two CCX units, with shared L3 cache.
  • I/O DIE: Manages communication between CCDs, CCXs, and other system components, ensuring even load distribution.

In summary, the shift from monolithic to heterogeneous processors represents a significant evolution in CPU design. Both Intel and AMD are exploring these innovative architectures to enhance performance, power efficiency, and multitasking capabilities, catering to the growing demands of modern computing.