From disco to today, x86 rules the roost

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Article over at c|net’s on computing’s experiment at stopping time: the x86 architecture.

The x86 instruction set architecture (ISA), used today in more than 90 percent of the world’s PCs and servers, hit the marketplace in 1978 as part of Intel’s 8086 chip.

Whether it’s the invention of the browser or low-cost network computers that were supposed to make PCs go away, the engineers behind x86 find a way to make it adapt to the situation.

Is this a problem? The yeas: we could cut a bunch of transistors (and power and cost) from chips if we stopped supporting code written, past 1990. The nays: it’s good enough, and it works.

It’s an interesting read that covers the EPIC disaster, what’s going on in processors right now, and what could be on the horizon.

So what might change the game? Performance is always one way to make software developers sit up and take notice, but there’s nothing dramatic on the horizon. It’s unlikely that any so-called “clean sheet” design would be able to produce more than a 10 percent improvement in performance or power consumption over the modern x86 ISA, Hester said.

A performance improvement that small isn’t going to encourage a dramatic move away from x86, said Pat Gelsinger, a veteran chip designer and senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s Digital Enterprise Group. “We’re delivering 2x performance gains every year” with existing designs that can still run older applications.