Intel sees computing, communications convergence

Developing new chips and technologies that further the convergence of communications and computing will be a top focus for Intel in the years ahead, company executives said here Thursday.

Intel is betting that future communications products, such as cellular phones, will require powerful computing capabilities, while all computing products, such as laptops and PDAs (personal digital assistants), will have wireless communications built in.

"That's the premise driving all of our product cycles," said Paul Otellini, Intel president and chief operating officer, speaking at the company's spring analyst meeting here.

That means more than a telephone line or wireless modem sticking out of the side of a laptop, he said. It means "the ability to move seamlessly through networks worldwide, and be configured for those networks automatically and have access to your data wherever you are."

Intel has 1,500 engineers working on wireless technologies to back up its talk with products, he said.

Among the efforts are development of a new chip for notebooks that integrates a small radio controller on the same piece of silicon as the microprocessor, which should help reduce power consumption and make wireless connectivity "essentially free in all our products," Otellini said. The chip should be able to detect automatically what type of wireless network is available to a user and switch automatically to that network, he said.

He didn't offer a timeframe but suggested the integrated wireless product will follow Banias, a new chip for notebooks due out next year that was built from the ground up to boost performance and extend battery life for mobile computing. A prototype of Banias was shown here on a test board that included a complementary chip set called Odem and components for 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, wireless connectivity.

New circuit design and power management features in Banias should boost notebook battery life by 20 percent to 30 percent, and further power savings should be possible through modifications elsewhere in notebooks, he said. "We are aggressively driving the industry towards an all-day, 8-hour notebook," he said.

The company's StrongArm processor is also key to the convergence strategy, powering PDAs and smart phones that will take advantage of packet-based wireless networks being built worldwide that are better able to handle data transmission, said Ron Smith, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's wireless communications and computing group.

All major cities in the U.S. should be wired with 2.5G networks (networks called one-half generation beyond current circuit-switched networks) by the end of this year, he said. Europe already is covered, while Japan is leapfrogging its way to faster 3G (third-generation) networks. The networks should allow a variety of consumer and business applications, including the ability to access supply chain software remotely to check inventory levels and order new parts, he said.

Such applications will require greater computing muscle, and Intel has developed new silicon products that sandwich together logic and flash memory chips to conserve size and power consumption. Smith showed a prototype XScale chip stacked on top of 128M bytes of flash memory that will be available for PDAs and cell phones later in the year, he said.

The next step is to integrate logic, flash and analog components into a single chip, something the company has already achieved in sample products, Smith said.

Executives also gave an update on the chip maker's forthcoming desktop, notebook and server products.

The next release of Intel's 64-bit Itanium processor, code-named McKinley, will officially be called Itanium II, officials said. The chip, which is aimed at servers and workstations, will sport an on-chip memory cache of 3M bytes, up from 1M byte on the current Itanium chip, and double the number of transistors to 220 million.

In 2003 the chip maker plans a successor to Itanium II, code-named Madison. Otellini showed a sample of the chip, which will sport 6M bytes of on-chip cache and have a half-billion silicon transistors packed on its surface. By comparison, today's Pentium 4 desktop processor has about 42 million transistors. Madison is "on track and looks very, very solid," Otellini said.

The company hopes to steal business from Sun Microsystems Inc. and other vendors selling Unix servers based on RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) processors, which are the mainstay of large servers today. "We continue to go aggressively after the enterprise to convert to Intel," he said.

The Pentium 4 desktop chip will hit 2.53GHz later this quarter, up from 2.4GHz today. The front-side bus will be widened with that release from 400MHz to 533MHz, further boosting performance. The bus is a digital pipeline that carries data between the processor and other system components. Intel is still on track to release a 3GHz Pentium 4 for desktops in the fourth quarter, he said.

The company's new NetBurst microarchitecture, currently reserved for higher end desktop and server chips, will spread quickly to Intel's Celeron family of processors for low-cost PCs. NetBurst will help Intel to keep cranking the clock speeds of its low-cost chips and will be shipped with 80 percent of Celeron processors by the end of the year, Otellini said.

Intel also demonstrated its hyperthreading technology in a PC powered by a prototype 3GHz Pentium 4 chip. An engineer showed how hyperthreading, which basically lets a single chip act like two processors, can speed up applications such as video encoding. The technology, already used in some server chips, will be brought to desktop Pentium 4 processors next year, Otellini said.

Hyperthreading can boost the performance of desktop applications by 10 percent to 30 percent depending on the type of software being used, he said. Applications need to be tweaked to take advantage of the technology, however, and Intel is working hard to make that happen in time for next year's release, he said.

In a presentation about Intel's communications efforts, Sean Maloney, executive vice president and general manager of Intel's communications group, said the company has been taking time during the slow economy to integrate technologies from recent acquisitions.

"We've used a lot of time during the recession to do a lot of the difficult work there," he said.

The current economic problems facing telecommunications providers affect equipment purchases, he acknowledged.

"Until the service providers start buying more equipment, then this industry is going to remain challenged," he said.

The good news about the recession is that telecommunication companies are now looking to purchase standardized IT equipment, such as that offered by Intel, rather than specialized systems, Maloney said. Intel will be the leading supplier of network processors and is increasing its share of the optical market as well, according to Maloney.

A move into optical technology was inevitable for Intel "because as Moore's Law increases, copper runs out of its ability to take signal," Maloney said.

Intel also is promoting use of the IEEE 802.11 wireless standard, both the a and b variants, he said. "It's critical for the industry that we don't end up with a standards war," said Maloney.

Intel expects to be the number one supplier of 802.11 equipment because of its ability to roll out complex software for these systems, he said.

The company also wants to make greater inroads in the network processor market, Maloney said, adding that consolidation is happening in this market segment. "This is the critical year in network processors," he said.

Intel has to remain committed to the communications industry, Maloney said.

"We have to show ongoing commitment. We have to execute, execute, execute. It's about discipline," Maloney said.

Intel's recent strides in communications systems constitute substantial progress, according to Maloney.

"Essentially, within a year, we've gone from being a participant on the edge of those industries to being in the center," Maloney said. The company also is involved in standards-making processes, he added.

(Paul Krill is an editor at large at InfoWorld, an IDG News Service affiliate.)

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