Intel: The processor will be the system

Intel is planning a revolution in chip production, taking many functions that have resided outside the processor - both hardware and software - into the chip itself. The result, it promises, will be another quantum leap in processing speed.

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For years, the guts of a PC remained largely unchanged. In one product generation after another, Intel processors connected to a chipset that consisted of a memory controller and an I/O controller. That's about to change.

If Intel has its way, the functions carried out by these chips, and other components inside the PC, will soon end up inside the processor.

"You're going to have a hard time knowing where the processor ends and where the system-on-chip begins," said Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group, during an interview at the Intel Developer Forum conference in Beijing last week.

In Intel's vision of the future, the processor becomes the system architecture instead of a component. "You're going to see incredible integration in the future," Gelsinger said.

The first hint of these changes came five years ago, when Intel added simultaneous multithreaded processing capabilities to boost performance in its Pentium 4 chips. Until that point, the basic architecture of most computers - a single processor core running a single thread of instructions - had remained unchanged for decades.

More change came with the introduction of Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s (AMD's) Athlon 64 processor, which integrated the memory controller with the processor on a single die. This first step towards integration of the processor with other PC components was followed in 2005 with AMD's introduction of dual-core processors, and the 2006 release of the first quad-core chip from Intel.

Building on these advances, Intel engineers are designing processors with more cores that integrate many of the functions assigned to other chips. As the number of cores increases, so does the number of threads that can be processed simultaneously, opening the door to further performance gains.

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