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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.