Intel Plugs Into System Power

Researchers are focusing on how to make PCs' guts more energy-efficient.

Intel has made low-power processors its first priority, but its next step is to focus on system-level power management—the cooling fans, circuits and voltage regulators—inside computers, company executives said at its spring developer confab here.

Officials for the chip maker at the Intel Developer Forum said the companys researchers are attacking system power with a series of initiatives they believe could collectively help reduce systems average power consumption by 30 to 40 percent. These moves, if adopted, wouldnt result in any commercial products for at least three to four years, but they could eventually make a dent in high electric bills.

"Were taking an end-to-end view of the whole power situation," said Raj Yavatkar, director of Intels Systems Technology Lab, in Hillsboro, Ore. "This particular industry has lagged because no one has paid attention to it" thus far, said Yavatkar, adding that, to date, performance has been a greater concern.

Indeed, power management is getting attention at the upper echelons at Intel.

"The potential for managing power at the platform [level] is great, and its something we need to take the opportunity to improve in all of our systems," said Justin Rattner, Intels chief technology officer, during a keynote address at IDF.

Intel is tackling power management worries on two fronts. For starters, Intel officials detailed a new generation of processors that promise a better mix of performance and energy efficiency. One, its dual-core "Woodcrest" Xeon dual-processor server chip due in the third quarter, will cut power by 35 percent, while offering an 80 percent increase in performance versus its predecessors. The chip, which will be joined by new notebook and desktop processors, is based on Intels Core Microarchitecture, a revision of its underlying circuitry, created with a greater focus on energy efficiency.

The other front will involve altering the guts of the computer in an effort Intel calls EESA (Energy-Efficient Systems Architecture). If Intel can make headway on cutting the power a system uses overall, it may be able to allay worries among corporate technology managers fretting about electric rates growing as fast as their server population.

To turn the companys EESA into reality, Intels Systems Technology Lab is attacking power management piece by piece. At the heart of the EESA efforts is a view that many systems components use power unnecessarily simply because they are waiting to receive some sort of user input or some data, Yavatkar said.

According to Yavatkar, a more fine-grained power management scheme would allow the systems, ranging from Ultra Mobile PCs to big servers, to operate more efficiently, with no visible effects on performance to users or technology departments.

EESAs goal of finer power management could be achieved by creating more powerful manageability engines or purpose-built microcontrollers that carry out jobs inside systems, Yavatkar said.

Systems equipped with Intels AMT (Active Management Technology) already have manageability engines built into their chip sets to direct the flow of data inside a system. AMT, which was introduced in 2005, is expected to become much more widely available in 2006.

Yavatkar said beefing up the manageability engines would be a precursor to schemes that would shut down processors much more quickly, allowing them to spend more time in low-power sleep states. The manageability engine also could be used to administer audio, displays, I/O systems such as USB and add-in board interfaces such as PCI Express.

For instance, better management of USB controllers would yield improvements because the standard lacks the ability to jump in and out of low-power states quickly. A USB controller essentially stays active and can keep other parts of a system hot while it waits to respond to a command. Powering down the controller when its not needed would cut power consumption, Yavatkar said.

Memory might someday be managed more finely by an even more advanced engine, Yavatkar said. The Systems Technology Lab also is investigating ways to create more efficient power supplies and retune voltage regulation circuits, two additional power-saving measures, he said.

Granted, the work done by the lab is still in the research stage, meaning EESAs power management schemes are years away from going commercial. None of them are guaranteed to be used.

However, given the potential double-digit system power cuts seen by the lab, adopting the technologies would make sense for Intel product groups, which are more focused on power consumption now. Meanwhile, for measures such as improving USB—or, later, memory and power management—the lab might work with standards bodies or even share its work directly with component makers, Yavatkar said.

Systems makers, so far, have embraced Intels more power-focused efforts. Hewlett-Packard executives, for example, said the company would adopt Intels new architecture chips for servers.

Many of Dells customers are most concerned about cost of ownership, an issue that can be affected by power consumption and heat, said Jay Parker, director of worldwide marketing for Dell PowerEdge servers, in an interview here.

But "any time a new technology from Intel or others [becomes] available that will help on that issue or something else, were open to doing that, as long as it has value to our customers," Parker said.

Additional reporting by Senior Editor Jeffrey Burt