Cool Tech Reviews

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March 6, 2006

Book review: The Pentium Chronicles by Robert P. Colwell

The Pentium Chronicles : The People, Passion, and Politics Behind Intel’s Landmark Chips by Robert P. Colwell. Published 2006 by John Wiley & Sons. ISBN: 0471736171.

Summary: Dr. Robert P. Colwell was Chief Architect of Intel’s wildly successful P6 processor and the The Pentium Chronicles is an anecdotal account of its development from someone who was in on it from the start. While portions of the book will only appeal to those in the chip industry, there is something there for everyone about life in a large organization.

Review: Dr. Colwell’s account of the development of the Intel’s “P6″ processor (which appeared to great success as Pentium Pro, Pentium II, Pentium III, and other names) will inevitably be compared to Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine, but the comparison is imprecise. While Kidder provides a start-to-finish narrative of the development of a minicomputer at Data General in the 70′s, Colwell recounts a selection of high (and low) spots along the way to the completion of the P6. Both projects were huge bets for their respective companies that were ultimately successful and both teams seemed to have suffered the same sort of “post partum depression” when they were completed.

Colwell describes starting out with a small team and the perils of each step along the way from concept to final production of a large chip technology project. The technological and development process insights are interesting to me and likely anyone else with experience in the industry. One is the guidance of design with performance information based on real data which is often amazingly absent from many technical projects. While many designers tend to shoot from the hip based on their “intuitions,” Colwell describes how his team trained their intuitions in designing the unprecedented features of the P6 using performance analysis tools they wrote themselves and exploiting real instruction traces.

If that is too techie for you, there are plenty of items of more general interest about the computer industry (e.g. a meeting at Microsoft turning into a shouting match between the Windows 95 and Windows NT teams or an off-the-cuff remark at a press event being blazoned across the headlines) and about life in a large organization. What do you do when when rival teams make bogus performance claims; or when there’s a corporate directive replacing satisfactory tool systems with buggy “approved” versions; or when implementing the latest corporate slogan campaign has your engineers in revolt? Colwell has no magic answer other than to shoot straight and tell the truth which is the best advice anyone can give.

However, while it never seems like it at the time, all successful technical projects are a brief magic moment which passes all too swiftly. Organizations inevitably change which places a premium on another key skill which is knowing when to move on. Colwell eventually did exactly that and explains why. The changes that have taken place at Intel over the years are likely one of the reasons it is facing its current difficulties.

Posted at 2:54 pm. Filed under Books, Companies, Intel

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