Tech Industry

Intel to unveil networking chips, stylized PCs

At a conference this week, the chipmaking giant will sketch out its vision for the future of computing and networking, as well as give a progress report on some lingering issues of the present.

At an Intel conference this week, the chipmaking giant will sketch out its vision for the future of computing and networking, as well as give a progress report on some lingering issues of the present.

The launch of Intel's networking chip line will likely be the highlight of the Intel Developer's Forum in Palm Springs, California. Intel's new chip--called the Internet Exchange Processor, or IXP 1200--will serve as the nerve center for routers, switches, and other communications hardware built by companies such as Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks, industry sources said. The chip will depend upon technology acquired from Level One, Softcom, and Digital.

Faced with declining profits from PC chips, Intel this year has set its sights on the more lucrative communications market, now the hottest area of the semiconductor industry as consumers and businesses demand more bandwidth and Internet traffic grows. It is only the latest of many changes for the company, which recently has decided to retreat from the hypercompetitive graphics chip market.

Intel will face similar pressures in the communications market. Rival chipmakers such as Lucent, MMC Networks, Texas Instruments, Motorola, and others have been racing to develop new communications chips that make networking hardware faster and easier to upgrade.

As a market, networking chip sales are growing at 20 to 25 percent in terms of revenue, according to Mark Christensen, vice president and general manager of Intel's Network Communications Group, who will deliver one of the keynotes at the forum.

Intel has spent more than $2.3 billion in acquisitions in this area, and the buying spree will likely continue. "We're far from done with our acquisitions," said Christensen earlier this summer.

Another major theme for the conference will be the "Easy PC" initiative, a series of PC manufacturing recommendations and standards that will reduce the size of PCs as well as make them easier to use. Under Easy PC, for instance, computers will come equipped with USB ports, a high-speed connection for hooking up digital cameras and the like to the PC, rather than ISA ports, an older, out-of-use technology that many PC still feature.

Some of these systems, judging by previous prototypes shown off by Intel, also likely will come with CD-R, or CD-recordable, drives rather than floppy drives.

Easy PC will also allow for smaller, stylized computers, many of which will be based around a new, tiny motherboard design called Micro ATX. The Barbie and Hot Wheels PCs coming from Mattel are examples of this. Dell Computer, among the large manufacturers, has said it will embrace the style trend by releasing a fancy PC, code-named the Webster, later this year.

"You will see a lot of pre-production units from U.S. players and APAC [Asian-Pacific manufacturers]" emphasizing color and design at the conference, said Pat Gelsinger, general manager of the desktop products group at Intel, earlier this summer. Many of these systems will hit later this year.

The company will also provide an update on a number of lingering technology issues. Intel, for instance, will formally declare whether it will support 133-MHz memory, a faster version of current PC memory. Until recently, Intel has said that it will design future products to work with memory based around designs from Rambus and not 133-MHz DRAM. PC makers, however, have complained loudly that Rambus is too expensive and that they want to use the faster, standard memory.

Intel is expected to declare that it plans to make chipsets that will work with 133-MHz memory at least as an interim step. If that occurs, the question will become how much emphasis Intel will put on 133-MHz memory and what effect this has on Rambus.

Further, Intel will also provide updates on its upcoming Merced and Coppermine chips. Merced, Intel's first 64-bit processor, is due in the middle of next year but has yet to be seen. Intel is expected to show off the first samples of the chip at the conference. The chip and its successors are being directed at high-end servers and workstations that currently use RISC-based chips such as the Sun UltraSparc II.

Coppermine, by contrast, is a revved-up version of the Pentium III. Expected to debut at 667 MHz, Coppermine will feature a number of architectural tweaks, including an integrated secondary cache for better overall performance, over "standard" Pentium IIIs. Originally due now, the chip has been delayed until November.

The chip is important for Intel because of the presence of the Athlon, the highly touted chip from AMD that outperforms the Pentium III on many benchmark tests.

"Coppermine's improvements, while unlikely to turn the performance table around, will definitely narrow the gap. With clever marketing, Intel could muddy the water enough to obscure Athlon's remaining performance lead," wrote Keith Diefendorff, editor in chief of The Microprocessor Report, recently.