Chips with everything: processors get embedded functions

Embedding functionality into hardware promises speed, power and economy. What more could you ask for?


What the future holds

Michael Cote, an analyst at RedMonk, says adding hardware-assisted functions to replace or augment software capabilities will continue to increase this year and next, as mainstream microprocessor manufacturers attempt to differentiate their product lines.
Cote adds: "These capabilities will continue to increase as more IT professionals gain a greater understanding of what is available and the potential benefits."

In most cases, rather than fully replacing businesses’ traditional systems management software applications, the new hardware-assisted capabilities will make that software operate more efficiently. Kevin Unbedacht, senior platforms strategist at Altiris, a provider of IT asset management software and services, says Intel's new Active Management Technology (AMT) is a good example.

Altiris' software has traditionally been able to analyse only those systems that are on and running an operating system. If a system is off, or not operating properly, the Altiris software cannot collect a full inventory analysis.

By using the AMT capability embedded within the chipset of VPro systems, however, the Altiris tracking and inventory software can detect systems even when they are off or not operating properly.

In addition, flash memory inside the VPro chipset stores system information each time the PC is booted, providing up to date information on the system status. The out-of-band alerts enabled by AMT can allow an IT department to make a single dispatch call, instead of the two that have been traditionally required for analysis and repair, he says.

The end result, Unbedacht says, is a hardware/software combination that can proactively monitor IT infrastructure instead of reacting only when something is wrong.

In addition, having basic management capabilities hardwired into silicon will make it simpler for new entrepreneurial systems management companies to add product offerings that can rapidly be adopted by IT professionals and integrated in enterprise-level applications, RedMonk's Cote says.

Intel calls its effort Embedded IT, and is attacking the problem with a variety of new or planned capabilities. Competitor AMD is making similar efforts with its Trinity and Torrenza programmes.

Measuring success: not so fast

The biggest boost to processor performance in the last two years has been the move to multicore processors. The migration from single-core to dual-core processors in the x86 market provided direct performance gains of 80% or more, and the first quad-core processors from Intel are providing another 50% improvement, says Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. How much hardware-assisted features or embedded IT will add to performance is debatable, with the real measure of worth to be determined by how the efforts improve such things as manageability.

"The ultimate test is whether it works for the IT professional for their specific application," Brookwood says. "Things like embedded IT are really designed to increase functionality rather than performance."

Markus Levy, an analyst who serves as president of the Multicore Association and the Embedded Microprocessor Benchmark Consortium , says the move to embed more hardware-assisted features will undoubtedly bring performance gains. But measuring any specific gain is a new challenge that industry groups are only beginning to address.

Increasing the clock speed of microprocessors has provided only minimal performance gains in the past few years as processor manufacturers have hit the wall in the trade-off between speed and the heat generated by the chips. Even the addition of multiple cores in processors running at lower clock speeds to reduce heat is expected to see diminishing returns as these chips move to eight or more cores, Levy explains.

In traditional architectures the use of additional cores will not necessarily help applications that require specific optimisation, he says, adding to the need for hardware-enabled assists. "When you are trying to do a specific function like security acceleration, adding another processor core can be an expensive piece of hardware, compared to enabling that capability by using only 100,000 or so gates inside the existing chip," Levy says.

Determining the level of performance enhancement associated with these hardware-assisted hooks and accelerators is a task the technology is just beginning to tackle.

"We're going to have to have benchmarks that are specifically tailored towards the use of those features," Levy says. "It is also going to require that we think of performance in a different way. It is going to be pretty challenging to develop a benchmark suite that will work on everybody's platform as they become increasingly custom."

Management by hardware

The past year has seen the advent of hardware-assisted features in mainstream x86-based microprocessors from Intel and AMD. Even as chip vendors have turned to multicore implementations as the primary source for boosting performance, they are adding hardwired features into their processors and associated chipsets.

These features were previously left solely to software or were not addressed at all.

"We are looking hard at what technologies are right to be moved into silicon and placed within our platforms as opposed to technologies that need to stay in software," says Margaret Lewis, director of commercial solutions at AMD. "As a result, we are on the brink of a lot interesting new concepts in performance. It's no longer simple. In many cases, it won't be necessarily be how fast you complete a task, but how satisfied you are with the result."

AMD's Trinity platform is intended to allow processors to handle virtualisation, security and management. One of the first commercialised efforts has been technology originally developed under the codename Pacifica, to allow hardware to more easily run multiple operating systems.

AMD's Torrenza platform was also introduced in the past year. Torrenza uses AMD' s existing interconnect technology to allow third parties to create application-specific coprocessors that can work alongside AMD processors in multisocket systems.

Intel's embedded IT capabilities include its already released Virtualisation Technology, which like AMD's Pacifica provides a hardware-enabled ability to more effectively create virtualised infrastructure installations. Intel has also introduced Active Management Technology (AMT), which is embedded in client-side processors. AMT allows IT managers to remotely access networked computing equipment -- even where this lacks a working operating system or hard drive or where these have been turned off.

Also in the works from Intel is I/O Acceleration Technology, a network accelerator that can break up the data-handling job between the components in a server, including the processor, chipset, network controller and software. The distributed approach reduces the workload on the processors while accelerating the flow of data, Intel says.

Intel's Trusted Execution Technology, originally codenamed LeGrande Technology, is a set of hardware extensions to processors and chipsets that enhances security. The technology is designed to prevent software-based attacks and to protect the confidentiality and integrity of data stored or created on a client PC.

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