Understanding The Pendulum Method: Intel’s Tick Tock Strategy

If you know anything about computers, you’ve likely heard of Intel- they’re one of the largest hardware manufacturers around, and provide tech for everything from media centers to gaming consoles. What you may not know, however, is how they go about developing this technology- through a rather revolutionary method known as “tick tock”.


What it is:

Developed in early 2007,  “tick tock” is “Intel's strategy to predictably introduce a new microarchitecture--the tock, such as "Nehalem"--and a new silicon process technology--the tick, such as our 45nm process technology--in alternating years. Tick-tock strategy provides Intel with a competitive advantage. “(Intel)

Okay, so I’m sure at least a few of you have noticed a problem with the preceding paragraph: Unless you’ve more than a passing knowledge of computers- specifically of hardware and software- they might as well be speaking Greek. So in order to understand Intel’s Tick Tock, we’re first going to have to understand two key terms: Microarchitecture and Process Technology. Here’s where it gets a little complicated.



At its base, each computer chip consists of two primary elements: The Instruction Set Architecture, and the Microarchitecture. The Instruction Set Architecture is related to the programming of a computer- how the computer understands what each 1 and 0 in binary (the basic language of computers) means, what instructions are to be carried out and when, et-cetera. To simplify, the Instruction Set Architecture is the part of the computer chip or processor that deals with what the chip does- it’s a ‘bridge’ between software and hardware.

The Microarchitecture, on the other hand, can be seen as how the ISA does what it does. It’s how everything is ultimately organized on the chip or processor. Granted, there’s a bit more to it than that, but for the purpose of understanding Tick Tock, that’s really all you need to know.

So basically, on every tock, Intel releases a new means of organizing a computer chip, so to speak.  Got it? Good. Now, for the second term.


Process Technology:

So you might notice that I’ve referred to it as “process technology” rather than “Silicon Process Technology”; the reason being, well…this term is actually a bit ambiguous. We’ve detailed how the Instruction Set Architecture deals with what the chip does, the microarchitecture is how it does that, and the processor; the processor is basically what kicks into gear once the ISA has determined what needs to be done. To get right into it, the ISA can be seen as the foreman of a factory, the Microarchitecture can be seen as the organization of the factory floor, and the Processor comprises the workers and machines that keep the factory running- they carry out the instructions of the foreman as best they can with the way the factory’s organized.  So on every tick, Intel releases a new processor.

In Layman’s Terms

Ultimately, Intel’s Tick Tock method can be summed up in the following simplified statement: Every ‘tick’, Intel releases a new, more complex processor. Then, every ‘tock’, Intel develops a microarchitectural ‘blueprint’ of sorts designed specifically FOR the increased complexity of the new processor. 

The advantages of this are pretty clear – they bring out new technology one year and then proceed to optimize that technology the following year. Rather than blindly forging ahead and running into compatibility or design issues, they go back and forth, like a pendulum. A very interesting innovation, and one that’s helped Intel to jump ahead in the market since its development. Tick, tock, tick, tock.