IDF: Banias ends the megahertz madness for Intel

Intel is slowing down in its race for more megahertz, and plans to start tailoring processors more closely to the applications they will be used for

Intel is taking its first steps away from the company's traditional focus on raw speed towards tailoring systems for individual types of users, the company said on Tuesday.

At the Intel Developer Forum in San Jose, executive vice president Paul Otellini detailed new technologies, including Banias, a chip designed specifically for mobile computing, and improvements to the McKinley server chip, which emphasise Intel's shift away from the one-size-fits-all, megahertz-intensive strategy it has relied on in the past.

"We are changing our pattern of investment," Otellini said. "We need to be moving beyond megahertz."

Banias will be Intel's first processor designed from the ground up for mobile computing, and Otellini said the chip is a recognition that the mobile market is coming to be dominated by the "thin and light" segment. In the past Intel has simply customised its desktop chips for mobiles, but Banias is a shift away from that cost-effective strategy.

The chip will not appear until the end of next year, but Intel revealed some details of the improvements that will be built in. The two main features are more aggressive power management and a power-saving architectural feature called "micro ops fusion".

Intel's mobile chips have recently been designed to reduce processor speed when the megahertz are not needed, a feature called clock gating. Banias will continue this trend on a more extreme level, Otellini said.

But the mobile chip will also process instructions in a way designed to save power.

Micro ops fusion is a way of "fusing instructions together so that you have to execute fewer instructions," according to Mooly Eden, the general manager of Intel's Israel development centre. Fewer instructions to execute means less power is consumed.

The chip is aimed at a market segment that has grown faster than the overall PC market for the past five years, and which Intel expects to continue to grow quickly -- although industry analysts have grown more sceptical about the segment recently.

Three overall factors are driving that growth. Aside from the increasing number of workers on the move, wireless networking and increasing computing density have created increasing demand for low-power chips.

As demand rises for large farms of servers doling out Web pages at an immense rate, companies have shown increasing interest in high-density computing, including rack-optimised servers and, more recently, server "blades" that can fit dozens of complete servers into the space of a single rack unit. Such high density requires lower heat output and power consumption.

Intel also expects that as wireless networks such as 802.11b wireless LANs become more common, workers and home users will find laptops increasingly attractive. "We think wireless will be a huge driver for growth," said Frank Spindler, vice president and general manager of Intel's mobile platforms group.

Intel also demonstrated new reliability features built into McKinley, the code name for the second-generation Itanium processor for high-end servers.

Otellini demonstrated a McKinley processor that was able to continue executing transactions even as it recovered from several errors using the processor's machine check architecture (MCA).

MCA also has more sophisticated logging, aimed at giving IT managers "incremental knowledge of where their systems are failing, even though they never completely fail," Otellini said.

Industry analyst Brian Gammage of Gartner Group said that although the features are not new to enterprise computing, they would be a boon to companies using Itanium. "Those were was some of the most exciting things they announced today," he said.

With Itanium, Banias and the embedded architecture Xscale, analysts say that Intel is cautiously broadening its focus away from the central market of the mainstream desktop PC. Otellini characterised Itanium as the company's most important new venture. "The buildout of the enterprise for e-business, around Itanium, is the single biggest growth opportunity," he said.

Intel is also looking to make changes to the mainstream desktop by introducing hyperthreading -- a way of delivering the performance of a multi-processing system on a single chip. Hyperthreading will be introduced for businesses with Xeon processors next year, and will ultimately make it to ordinary desktops, Otellini said. Current versions of Windows XP Professional will support hyperthreading, although the version of XP for home users will not support the feature.

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