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Intel hopes for new connection

The semiconductor giant is pushing a standard it hopes will put it in the express lane for communications equipment.

Read more about Intel and networking
Intel is building new technology for connecting chips inside telecommunications and networking equipment, part of its plan to delve deeper into the communications world.

The Santa Clara, Calif., chipmaker will announce within the next month that it is spearheading the development of PCI Express Advanced Switching (PCI EAS), a new, networking-specific flavor of the interconnect for computers.

Sources familiar with the project said Intel has already signed on Alcatel, EMC, Hitachi, Marconi, Nokia and Siemens to support the new specification.

PCI Express is currently being touted as a way to create a simple and fast link between chips or circuit boards inside computers, allowing them to exchange data at a maximum rate of 2.5 gigabits per second. It is vying to become the successor to PCI, the current interconnect of choice.

PCI EAS uses the same hardware as PCI Express, but would be used in networking equipment, displacing PCI connections or customer interconnects. The bulk of the required changes affect PCI Express' software stack--software that accommodates the transfer of data. The changes would let the stack accommodate network data.

Overall, PCI EAS would let networking-equipment manufacturers reduce the cost of making their gear by allowing them to simply buy parts from Intel or other chipmakers instead of designing and making their own. Competitors, though, are promoting competing standards.

"We think it's absolutely critical to focus on the way things connect together to create this modular environment everyone acknowledges we need to move to over time," said Rajiv Kumar, initiatives manager for Intel's Communications Group.

Potential down the road
Although telecommunications carriers aren't investing much in new equipment right now, Intel and others believe the market will become a prime opportunity in the future. Since Internet traffic continues to climb, telecommunications carriers will have to invest in new equipment at some point, analysts and executives say. Undoubtedly, when they do begin looking at new equipment, price will be an important consideration.

Historically, telecommunications carriers bought equipment from networking companies such as Cisco and Juniper Networks as well as server makers like Sun Microsystems. But Intel and IBM, among others, say they can reduce the price of both networking gear, like switches and routers, and telecommunications servers as they did with PCs. They say they can bring the same sort of economics and manufacturing techniques, such as standard components and interconnects, to this market, an important consideration for cash-strapped carriers.

IBM has even set up a division in its server group devoted to providing services and equipment to the communications industry.

Intel plans to use PCI EAS in products like its Intel Exchange Architecture () network processor. PCI EAS could connect the chips with switched fabrics-chips that, like a switch, bridge the various network connections inside a piece of equipment. It will also focus on convincing rivals to use PCI EAS with the aim of establishing the technology as an industrywide standard.

Though in recent years Intel has moved to diversify its business away from PC chips, its results have been mixed in the market meltdown.

For the third quarter ending Sept. 30, Intel's Communications Group reported a loss of $177 million on revenue of $482 million. Intel's communications unit lost $218 million on revenue of $580 million in the third quarter a year ago. Along with its network processors, the group also produces Ethernet networking gear, embedded control chips and optical networking components.

Intel's PCI EAS or a similar interconnect such as Advanced Micro Device's HyperTransport could become the lever that shifts networking equipment makers toward using a greater number of standard components to build devices, according to analysts. Intel has high hopes its PCI EAS, and not a competitor like HyperTransport, will be that catalyst.

"(PCI Express) is going to be in just about every chip that Intel produces," Kumar said. "We have a migration plan on all of our silicon to move to PCI Express."

Challenges abound
The big question is whether Intel will succeed in establishing PCI EAS. Including the new technology, there are at least three major viable chip interconnect standards in play for networking gear.

Motorola's Rapid I/O serves to connect chips with a high-speed link. IBM, which makes the network processor and a host of other communications chips, uses Rapid I/O.

Other communications chipmakers, including Broadcom and PMC-Sierra, are leaning toward , a chip-to-chip connection developed by AMD. Both companies sell chips using that standard.

Rapid I/O and HyperTransport have been in play for as long as two years, but Intel's PCI Express Advanced Switching isn't likely to come out until next year and probably won't gain any traction until 2005, analysts said. Intel also carries the burden of its dominance in PC architectures; telecommunications companies don't necessarily want the giant to take over a new area.

"The tech guys can get together and argue until they are blue in the face, but what it comes down to is who (Intel) can get to support these" interconnects, said Linley Gwennap, principal at the Linley Group. "It's going to be hard to convince them to give up their own technology in favor of Intel's. It's going to be a while until all this gets sorted out."

IBM Microelectronics will continue to use Rapid I/O in its PowerPC chips in the future, said Calpesh Gala, a marketing manager for IBM PowerPC.

"There are a variety of technical, marketplace and customer reasons why we feel this interconnect outshines PCI Express," Gala said.

IBM Microelectronics evaluated PCI Express and also HyperTransport, but found Rapid I/O to be superior in speed, offering higher bandwidth, and in functionality, such as quick recovery from errors, Gala said.

Motorola, which uses Rapid I/O in its chip for networking gear, is also standing firmly behind that interconnect, a company representative said.

Intel will tout cost as one of PCI EAS' major advantages. Thanks to the sales volume of regular PCI Express chips and connectors--the technology will be present in millions of PCs and servers, starting in 2004--chips, connectors and other components will be much cheaper, Kumar said.

Time could also be on Intel's side. The chipmaker can pitch PCI Express Advanced Switching as a next-generation interconnect after Rapid I/O or HyperTransport. But it's safe to assume there will be advances in those two technologies over time as well.

Standard inevitable
While the manufacturers clearly disagree right now, analysts said the showdown will eventually lead to consensus on a standard for network interconnects. That is, if chipmakers want to sell truly large numbers of chips.

"That's what standards do. They help companies like Intel sell a slew of chips," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight64. "Any time you have an industry standard that's broadly accepted, it creates higher volume, drives down cost and drives industry growth."

Ultimately, Intel hopes PCI EAS will move the industry in its direction. But consensus, if it comes, is more likely to come from equipment manufacturers and possibly less prominent chipmakers, analysts said.

Multiple standards often confuse an industry. Some of the smaller companies that make components like network processors found it difficult to choose from among the interconnect standards because of fear of choosing the wrong one, Gwennap said.

"If Intel could get Broadcom or PMC-Sierra or IBM to back it, that would pave the way to get other people," said Gwennap. "But the first is always the hardest."

Networking giant Cisco Systems has embraced HyperTransport, Gwennap said, a huge vote for that standard. But with Alcatel and EMC on its side, Intel can't be counted out, either. The chipmaker is confident that a number of companies will sign on to PCI EAS.

"In essence what we'd be doing by standardizing the interconnect is expanding the sandbox that everyone can play in," Kumar said. This will allow gear makers to "change the game from looking at things at an interconnect basis to allow them to choose best in class components, which they can't do today."