Main memory: the crucial component that vendors don’t mention

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

CPU performance hogs the limelight when people discuss the year-on-year increases in computing power that used to occur.

This focus on cpu performance was/is driven by marketing, the people with the money either don’t want customers thinking about the performance impact of main memory size or speed, or want them to treat the processor as the most important component of a computer. Vendors want processor performance to drive customer purchase decisions.

Hardware manufacturers used to entice new customers with low cost machines, containing minimal memory. Once a customer started to use their shiny new computer, they found that it did save them lots of time and money, but also they needed more memory (which could only be brought from the manufacturer and was not cheap).

The plot below shows the prices IBM charged for System 360s, in 1966. Anti-trust investigations uncover all kinds of interesting data, like selling low-spec equipment at a loss to entice customers and make life difficult for competitors (code+data for all plots).

Profit margin on IBM 360s sold with various memory sizes

The plot below (data from the 19 Aug 1985 issue of ComputerWorld) shows how the price of computers increased as the minimum about of memory they supported increased.

Yes, in 1985 top end computers came with over 50M of memory; but most customers thought themselves lucky if they had a few megabytes.

If the processor is slow, it just takes longer for programs to run. If the computer does not have enough memory, programs cannot run. For most applications memory requirements are addressed first, followed by processor performance; memory requirements is the number one issue. The optimizations that commercial compilers could perform were limited by the memory capacity of developer machines.

List price of computers, in 1985, supporting the given minimum amount of  memory

Intel’s main line of business used to be selling memory chips, but these chips became commodity items as more companies entered the market; Intel bet the farm on selling processors and the rest is history. As a seller of a unique product it was/is in Intel’s interest to spend lots of money on marketing the benefits of processor performance; sellers of commodity items (such as memory chips) don’t have nearly as much to gain from generic product marketing, because customers may choose to buy from other sellers (in such markets sellers have to concentrate on marketing themselves).

Memory capacity/speed and cpu speed are two aspects of system performance; they need to be balanced to meet customer drive application requirements. The plot below shows the SPEC cpu integer performance of 4,332 systems running at various clock rates; the colors denote the different peak memory transfer rates of the memory chips in these systems (code+data).

SPEC cpu integer performance vs. cpu clock rate

These days (and perhaps in the past, I don’t have any data), memory performance is a much better predictor of system performance, but vendors don’t have an incentive to market this fact.