Intel packs more than clockspeed Inside

New technologies brought in to help Intel retain number one spot

Four new Intel technologies announced this month are of particular interest to IT departments — and they have the potential to differentiate Intel products in a way that clockspeed never could.

The chipmaker unveiled the new virtualisation and management plans, rather unimaginatively called Intel Active Management Technology and Intel Virtualization Technology, at its Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. It also announced a new security technology called La Grande and a plan to speed up I/O on Intel processors called I/O Acceleration Technology, or I/OAT.

Active Management Technology is designed to allow remote management of computers even when they are turned off or suffering hardware or software problems. Intel hopes it will reduce IT costs by requiring less hands-on maintenance, providing greater security and allowing much faster recovery. AMT should also be able to notify IT departments of potential problems before they occur.

AMT, due for release on the desktop this year and on the server in 2006, will be implemented as a subsystem, independent of the host operating system, Intel says. From next year, AMT-enabled devices will use the Web Services Management (WS-Management) protocol to communicate with management and security software.

Intel expects AMT to complement its other technologies such as La Grande, which prevents some of the downtime currently incurred when malware strikes. Security tools tend to quarantine a computer that appears to be infected by misbehaving software, but La Grande instead drops users into a “safe mode” so they can continue working while the system is repaired.

The virtualisation technology, VT, places a Virtual Machine Monitor between the hardware and the operating system — or several operating systems. Each OS runs in its own protected memory space.

Intel says this will make migrations easier, as a legacy OS can run in one partition and apps can be slowly migrated to a newer OS running in another partition, and also allows a complete client–server setup to run on one computer. The company is also very keen on the idea that a service partition can be run that allows an IT department to run its security, support and backup applications completely independently from the user’s operating system.

Intel says its virtualisation technology will work with future releases of virtualisation software from existing vendors, and vice president Pat Gelsinger invited Microsoft VP Jim Allchin to the IDF stage to announce that Microsoft would support the technology in a future release of Virtual Server.

However, many grey areas remain. Will partitioned systems use the same file system — which will often be convenient but would negate the security benefits? How will software patches be performed when the same OS version is running in several partitions? Will individual partitions all need to be separately firewalled or will the entire device run its own firewall? How will different partitions compete for shared resources such as a certain TCP port or hardware devices such as speakers? Finally, and most troubling for many, can vendors be made to change their pricing schemes to allow multiple virtual operating systems to run under a single licence?

A panel of Intel executives was unable to give definitive answers to those and other questions. “I think we understand the technology situation,” said one executive. “In reality, I don’t think we have all the answers yet.”

Intel says the new I/O acceleration technology, due for release on servers next year, will speed up data transfer by as much as 30% by dividing data transfer responsibilities among the main processor, chipset, network controller and software, rather than lumbering the processor with all the work. I/OAT will require software support; Microsoft announced it would support the technology in future releases of Windows Server.

Don’t expect to see these technologies offered by Intel competitors such as AMD anytime soon, however. Intel executives made clear they are the product of “Intel IP” and they don’t envisage licensing them to competitors. The company’s new strategy of concentrating on added value and performance through multiple cores, rather than a fixed emphasis on clockspeed, might just give it an advantage over AMD and return purchasers’ gaze from the clockspeed rating to the ‘Intel Inside’ badge.

Although AMT, VT, La Grande and I/OAT are all scheduled for release this year or next, Intel had some other R&D products on display at IDF ‘05. Among them was a briefing on the world’s first continuous silicon laser, invented late last year in Intel laboratories. The company says the invention heralds the promise of tightly integrated computing and communications, and even integrated processing and optical circuits on a single chip.

Among the benefits of a silicon laser, says Intel, is that future development will take advantage of the “enormous investment” in silicon and become subject to Moore’s Law, bringing much greater speed of progress. Mario Paniccia, the director of Intel’s photonics technology lab, says the laser technology is likely to trail cutting-edge CPU development and so silicon lasers should be cost-effective to produce.

Paniccia says producing the laser is only the first of many steps before the technology is ready for production use, but he’s bullish about the eventual possibilities. “We could easily do in a centimetre of silicon what’s done today in kilometres of fibre,” he says.

Cooney attended IDF '05 as a guest of Intel

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