Intel Wants to Be the Chip for All Reasons

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2011-10-02

Intel Wants to Be the Chip for All Reasons

During its 43 years in business, Intel, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based processor maker, has built an international reputation based on making high-quality x86-type processors for uses that generally involve personal computers, enterprise servers, storage arrays and other familiar IT machines.

Now, as the proliferation of various types of other connected devices explodes into all corners of the globe and spreads over all income levels, more chips-and more powerful variations thereof-are going to be needed to carry these ever-increasing data loads and deliver them in a timely fashion. This includes thousands of devices that are not known for being in Intel's marketing sweet spot.

For example, Intel is just beginning to supply chips for tablets and phones-by far the world's fastest-selling IT items. When addressing Intel's investors earlier this year, CEO Paul Otellini said: "There's been so much written about tablets that I don't know where to start, except to say we're on track.

"We're tracking 35 designs on multiple operating systems. Some are shipping now with Windows. We're demonstrating some Android devices now. The tablet race is nowhere near finished. No one really knows the size of this market, but it's real clear that everyone's putting energy into it."

Otellini also said that, thanks to a well-ballyhooed partnership with Nokia that blew up in February 2011, Intel won't be powering smartphones until sometime in 2012. He stated: "We have freed up those [Nokia] resources and turned that design into a form factor/reference design. We're shopping that now to a number of manufacturers ... and we've had good success. You'll see the first Intel-based phones [using new Medfield chips] in the market the first part of next year. ... In hindsight, Nokia was the wrong partner to have picked."

Need for Performance


On the other side of this is the insatiable need for more and better high-performance computing. The power, bandwidth and storage numbers get mind-boggling in the supercomputing sector, with large enterprises, scientific labs, government agencies and other sectors clamoring for more and more processing power.

The demand never slows down. Intel, however, isn't fazed by all this demand.

The company wants to power all these to-come connections with new-generation, multi-integrated core (MIC) chips at every level: processors that will run all types of automated and human-driven devices from the creation of content to routers, to modems, to data centers, through processing and, finally, to storage. We're talking about all types of creational and networking devices, including sensors, videocams, scientific instruments-the whole gamut of IT.

Where there once were specialized chips doing random kinds of jobs, Intel plans to go there with its mainstream products. Its Xeon-class MIC processors, called the Intel Knights, are the frontline products in this initiative.

Kirk Skaugen, a 19-year Intel veteran (left)who has been whispered about as a possible future CEO, is the point man for a great deal of this future planning. His title is vice president of Intel's Architecture Group and general manager of the Data Center Group. This takes in quite a chunk of the company, including servers, storage, networking, switching, routing, telecom infrastructure and embedded systems.

"About two years ago, we combined wired and networking, servers and storage, which had all been three divisions," Skaugen told eWEEK. "The piece that hadn't been integrated was switching and routing, as well as communications infrastructure for the telcos. The same similarities of moving to standard Xeon hardware that happened in servers are happening in storage, as well as in the control plane of switching and routing."

In the future, the integration of new Xeon processors will replace all the old chips. That's also happening in communications infrastructure. "So, there are many similarities of old RISC processors that are moving over to Xeon for the economies, performance and everything that we've put together," Skaugen said. Incremental to that, Intel also added the burgeoning embedded processor business, he added.

"We have three pillars for [selling chips into] the cloud in our 2015 vision: the federated cloud, the automated cloud and the client-aware cloud," he said. "When we're going to connect 15 billion devices to the Internet by 2015 and Ericsson is saying 50 billion devices by 2020, it's important for us to know that whole connection."

What Intel means by client awareness, Skaugen said, "is that when you detect a device at the end of a service, our belief is that you want to optimize the end-user experience, but you also want to optimize the cost of the service and the infrastructure it takes to deliver that service.

"Where do you determine that client awareness?" he asked. "Does it happen at the bottom of a base station? Does it happen at the edge of the data center in a switch? Does it happen in the server? We now have a play across the data center to the device."

This all fits into Intel's automation pillar because the company already knows what kind of graphics are on the end of a client. "We can automate what type of server you can move a service to in the data center," he said.

Intel chips are being used in a solid 70 percent of the storage controller market, and that number is moving closer to 80 percent, according to Skaugen. "That's commensurate with where we're at in servers," he said. "And our business with the top 10 networking companies is up 60 percent in the last 18 months. We've ported literally hundreds of applications from Sparc to IA [Intel architecture] over the last five years in the telecom industry. All of that new business is basically Xeon.

"I think the telecommunications industry now has the confidence that Xeon is a mission-critical architecture and can move some of their internal workloads, not just the packaged apps. We're seeing a pretty big windfall of SPARC and Power conversion coming over to Xeon and, to certain extent, Itanium."

A Tall Order


So Skaugen and Intel in general have a lot of things to juggle, as far as supplying all sectors of IT-related businesses with processors that work and can last a long time. It's definitely a tall order. But can Intel live up to this lofty goal?

"Sun [Microsystems] used to be dominant in the financial services sector and telcos for a long time, but they're been washed out of most of that business in the last few years," Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT and a longtime Intel expert, told eWEEK. "There is continued momentum there [for Intel]. And when you look at the cloud services world-meaning Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft with Azure-they're all running x86.  There's very little of non-x86 in all those operations.

"Intel's in a sweet spot in that it's also pushing Unix into a smaller and smaller niche in a lot of markets. At the same time, they're considered the cutting-edge tech for this wave of cloud computing that everybody's been talking about and predicting for years."

What Intel really has in mind is being the microprocessor inside literally every part of the data center, King said. "That's the long view," he added. "And they're working very hard to make that happen."

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