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Intel takes cool to the core

Speed and heat are out at the world’s largest chipmaker; power management and cool are in. This week Intel will reveal details about a new chip architecture that will allow the company to put a lid on the runaway power consumption of its Pentium 4 and Xeon chips and to create chips with more than one processing core.

Intel has not yet publicly disclosed specifics about its next-generation architecture, other than to announce that it would be discussed at this week’s Intel Developer Forum. Analysts and other sources familiar with Intel’s plans, however, expect CEO Paul Otellini to say that Intel’s processors for the second half of 2006 will use an architecture inspired by the Pentium M notebook processor.

Intel launched the Pentium 4 and Xeon processors at the beginning of the decade and based them on an architecture designed to deliver maximum performance. At the time, clock speed was thought to be the most easily understood aspect of processor performance, despite the fact that clock speed is one of many metrics used to increase performance in processors.

Increases in clock speed — the rate at which a chip executes instructions — require increases in the electrical power used to run the chip. Keeping this power under control wasn’t a problem for Intel until the advent of new manufacturing technologies in 2003. As always, Intel used these new technologies to shrink the size of its transistors, but these devices had gotten so small that power was able to escape the transistors and leak out of the chip as heat.

Dealing with this level of heat has been difficult for IT managers trying to cool Intel’s most recent batch of chips in servers. For example, many enterprises have been forced to spend more than they anticipated on sophisticated layout strategies designed to maximize airflow in their server rooms.

The Pentium M architecture is designed to do more work per clock cycle, so it does not have to run as fast or use as much power to produce results similar to the Pentium 4 or Xeon processors. This also makes it easier for Intel to create chips with four or more processing cores that will fit into PCs and servers without the need for expensive and bulky cooling equipment.

“This is an acknowledgment that the market is more than just megahertz now,” said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

Intel is also expected to talk more about its effort to build other features such as virtualization and management technologies directly into its processors and chip sets.

Performance isn’t always the primary requirement of IT managers, according to McCarron. They are also worried about many other issues, such as security and manageability.

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