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Intel scores PC-redesign victory

A key industry group approves the chipmaker's proposal to rework the innards of computers, and a who's who of industry heavy hitters will promote the technology.

In a win for Intel, a key industry group has voted in favor of the chipmaker's proposal to rework the innards of computers, and a who's who of industry heavy hitters will promote the technology.

The proposed technology, called 3GIO, will now be overseen by the PCI-SIG, the standards body that supervises Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI), the long-dominant technique for plugging devices such as graphics cards and network cards into computers. PCI will be phased out and replaced by the Intel technology.

The PCI-SIG steering committee voted unanimously in favor of 3GIO Friday morning, the standards body's president, Roger Tipley, said. The nine committee members--representatives of Advanced Micro Devices, Broadcom's ServerWorks division, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Phoenix Technologies and Texas Instruments--had voted July 27 to take another week for company lawyers to review the standard.

The technology has staying power, Tipley said. "Ten years would be its minimum life, and you probably imagine it going well beyond that," he said.

The main companies putting their promotional muscle behind the technology will be Intel, IBM, Compaq Computer, Microsoft and Dell Computer, said Tom Bradicich, director of architecture and technology at IBM and one of the voters.

Out with the old...
PCI has enjoyed a long reign as the prevailing way to transfer data into and out of a computer, but speeding up the technology is becoming prohibitively expensive.

PCI sends synchronized signals along numerous parallel wires, but 3GIO uses many fewer wires that can transfer data at higher speeds because signals don't have to be synchronized. This revs up data transfer to graphics cards, for example, making for more realistic images in computer games. It also affects network cards, improving the response time of servers that send information such as Web pages over networks.

PCI-SIG's involvement in backing the Intel specification was first reported by CNET News.com.

Analysts had said a different standard--from Intel rival AMD--called HyperTransport had the potential to split the industry, but AMD didn't position HyperTransport as a 3GIO competitor.

3GIO has been governed by a more secretive, Intel-sponsored organization called the Arapahoe Working Group. "We have decided that bringing this to the PCI-SIG body was a better idea than going it alone with yet another special interest group," Bradicich said.

The technology goes by many names. When Intel unveiled it in March, the company simply referred to a "third-generation input/output," hence the 3GIO moniker. But the technology is also called Arapahoe and serial PCI, and it will likely emerge as a standard called PCI 3.0.

"We are now PCI 2.x. From all the conversations we have with the PCI-SIG, this is going to be the 3.0 spec," said Gabriele Sartori, president of the HyperTransport Technology Consortium and a member of the team who decided AMD should vote in favor of the 3GIO proposal. He predicted that version 3.0 would arrive in the second quarter of 2002.

PCI-SIG will gradually assume control of the technology, Tipley said. "Currently the direction for the specification is controlled by the Arapahoe Working Group. At a point in the future, it'll transfer totally over to PCI-SIG," he said.

Intel believes 3GIO will be used in desktop computers, laptops, servers and networking hardware, with the first products emerging in the second half of 2003. Representatives of several companies expected wider adoption to take place in 2004.

"Whatever you shoot for, add a year," said David Pullings, vice president of marketing at Broadcom's ServerWorks. "I would see 2004 as being realistic."

Built for speed
3GIO is expected to be as much as six times faster than PCI-X, the speediest version of PCI. Versions will be defined with a single wire or with two, four, eight, 16 or 32 wires for higher collective speeds, Tipley said, allowing the technology to work for a wide range of tasks.

"You can't go much faster, until light speed," with optical connections instead of wires, Tipley said.

PCI-X offers bandwidth of 1.1 gigabytes per second, with each of the 64 wires carrying about 17 megabytes per second.

Each 3GIO wire will be able to carry data at least 12 times that pace, Intel spokeswoman Mary Ninow said. That means a single-wire 3GIO connection could carry 206 megabytes per second, the eight-wire version could carry 1.6 gigabytes per second, and the 32-wire version could carry 6.6 gigabytes per second--six times the speed of PCI-X.

By contrast, the fastest Ethernet network cards generally available today carry data at 120 megabytes per second. AGP 4x, the fastest method for communicating with graphics cards, operates at 1.1 gigabytes per second.

Though the first versions of 3GIO will have wires communicating at 12 times the speed of those of PCI-X, later versions will have faster wires, Ninow said.

Executives at Intel also say it will cost less to transfer data at a given speed with 3GIO than with PCI.

InfiniBand on the run?
One issue raised by the adoption of 3GIO is what, exactly, it will replace. The technology will be good for connecting network cards and graphics cards, but it also has the potential to step on the turf of the high-end InfiniBand networking standard or the Universal Serial Bus (USB) and IEEE 1394 ("Firewire") standards for plugging in peripherals such as video cameras, scanners and printers.

Intel currently sees 3GIO as a bridge that would link to USB or IEEE 1394 connections, not a replacement for those connections, said Bala Cadambi, third-generation interconnect program manager at Intel's Desktop Platform Group. USB and IEEE 1394 were designed from the start to address some issues involved in plugging in peripherals, he said, issues PCI can't handle.

But IBM's Bradicich said it's expensive supporting numerous different data pathways--called "buses"--within the same computer design, and PCI has been heading in the direction of USB. Developers have been altering PCI so it will let people add and remove devices without having to shut down their computer first.

And Bradicich acknowledges that 3GIO steps on InfiniBand's toes. "There will be some overlap down at the low end" of the InfiniBand range, he said. But InfiniBand will arrive beginning this year and will be used for higher-end jobs, which 3GIO won't be able to handle. 3GIO "won't have the scalability, performance and reliability" that InfiniBand has for tasks such as connecting clusters of servers, Bradicich said.