Faster buses, simpler cards make PC better.
At a time when many buyers wonder if the PC platform has run its course, its good to see industry standards bodies moving forward with key connectivity improvements that can make our PCs dramatically faster and more flexible. These developments create new design opportunities for system builders but also challenge buyers to envision new applications—not just for recognizable next-generation PCs but for PC technologies at the core of a broader range of systems.
At the end of last month, the HyperTransport Consortium (www.hypertransport.org) announced its DirectPacket HyperTransport 1.1 Specification, which generalizes the HyperTransport connection model thats already at the heart of next-generation personal computers, such as Apples G5 or the systems already being built around AMDs Athlon 64 CPU. The 12.8GB-per-second HyperTransport pro-tocol, a royalty-free open standard, also enables breakthrough designs, such as the Red Storm supercomputer—with its network of 10,000 Opteron processors—thats being built by Cray Inc. for Sandia National Laboratories.
With the 1.1 specification, HyperTransport adds facilities for packet handling, peer-to-peer routing, data streaming and transmission-error handling. "These are optional capabilities," stressed Brian Holden, technical chair of the HyperTransport Consortium, when we spoke before the announcement. "If you dont want to support them, you add nothing." But for those who envision a few more Moores Law doublings still to come, Holden added, the new error retry protocol anticipates bleeding-edge designs. "The HT1 electrical interface is quite robust; if you tried to measure an error rate, you could wait a hundred years before you saw one. But at higher rates, its inevitable that the error rate will rise. We added a retry protocol to be prepared for the day when that might become a problem," he said.
Products using HyperTransport 1.1 should become available early next year, and buyers should be talking now with IT providers about the performance and flexibility gains that they can expect to enjoy. Specifically, buyers should be thinking in terms of highly interconnected systems, spanning both factory floor and back office, with widely varying requirements for data bandwidth. HyperTransport offers particular advantages in mixing various bus widths and clock speeds. Such variety is likely to be the hallmark of heterogeneous systems that mix everything from high-speed fiber to relatively low-bandwidth wireless connection.
PCs and PC-based systems will also become more flexible and simpler to configure with the PCMCIA ExpressCard specification. This standard combines USB 2.0 and PCI Express interfaces in a single form factor, making it easier to expand a machine in a variety of ways without opening the box to gain access to slots. ExpressCards will be about half the size of todays PC Card devices, with a high-speed serial interface thats simpler to implement than the current PC Cards parallel bus. ExpressCard implementations should become available for testing early next year, said the PCI-SIG standards group (www.pcisig.com) in another September announcement.
Again, its not too soon to be talking with IT providers about their plans to make life easier and less expensive with these improvements. Both desktop and laptop systems can be equipped with ExpressCard slots to ease the exchange of storage devices and other peripherals. When this is as simple as replugging an ExpressCard, enterprise buyers can cut the costs of entry-level systems and let end-user departments fine-tune their configurations.
By thinking in terms of new technologies, such as HyperTransport and ExpressCard, IT pros can identify new opportunities that are overlooked by those who see the future PC only as a somewhat-faster beige box. Tomorrows systems can go beyond running office suites at irrelevant speed. They can give us global connectivity, supercomputer performance and Lego-block ease of configuration to connect us with the entire supply chain, while working from wherever we need to be.
Lets tell IT vendors that we know what we can have and that we expect them to provide it.
E-mail Technology Editor Peter Coffee at email@example.com.