Intel cracks digital radio puzzle in preparation for data-heavy future

Intel Labs has shown off a wide range of cutting-edge technologies, from an all-digital radio transceiver to biometrics tech that lets people unlock devices with their palm
Written by Jack Clark, Contributor

Intel is preparing technologies to cope with a mobile, data-heavy future.
The chip company's researchers believe that as time goes on, every device from the smallest phone up to the largest supercomputer will have to take on advanced wireless capabilities to help transfer data.  

The Rose Point SoC packs a digital transceiver and two Atom chips onto the same die. Image: Jack Clark

On Thursday at the closing keynote of the Intel Developer Forum, chief technology officer Justin Rattner showed off some of the technologies the chipmaker is developing to get to this point.

In a wide-ranging speech, Rattner showed prototypes that went all the way from the transistor up through the middle of the stack and finally to technologies for the radio access network.

"From the simplest embedded sensor to the most sophisticated high-end supercomputer, I think all of them will [eventually] connect one way or another wirelessly," Rattner said.

Intel demonstrated an all-digital radio transceiver — something that Intel researchers themselves had thought 10 years ago was nigh-on impossible to build — along with technologies for biometric authentication, faster wireless data transfer, smart NICs and software base stations.

The Impossible Digital Radio

The 'Moore's Law Radio' caps off a 10-year mission by the chip company to digitise radio. It uses an experimental 32nm 'Rose Point' system-on-a-chip (SoC) that incorporates a Wi-Fi transceiver and two Intel Atom cores onto the same die, which will let the chip company dramatically reduce the transistor footprint of radio technologies, while improving their performance.

"We believe these radios will out-perform the best of analogue radios," Rattner told ZDNet on Thursday, noting that digital technologies allow the radio to constantly calibrate and deal with the interference environment.

Furthermore, by digitising the majority of the radio's components, Intel will be able to take advantage of improvements in chip fabrication technology to shrink the footprint of radios on chips, saving power and allowing for greater miniaturisation.

"The trouble with analogue is that it doesn't scale with the [CMOS fabrication] technology," Rattner said. "It actually gets worse as the transistors get smaller."

Taken together, Intel's technology means that radios can cost less and go into a wider array of devices, playing into the chip company's strategy of bringing powerful wireless communication technologies to everything from tiny sensors to huge supercomputers.

As is typical with Intel Labs presentations, Rose Point was a prototype, and Intel did not give a timeframe for when it hopes to commercialise the technology.

WiGig at 5Gbps

In a related scheme, Rattner invited Ali Sadri, the president of the WiGig alliance and director of Intel's mmWave Technology, to demonstrate a next-generation wireless data transfer standard that can shift data at 5Gbps.

After a couple of demo headaches, Sadri showed a 1080p video being streamed from a HDD, via an ultrabook, onto a monitor.

"We've always had the vision we needed to develop a very high throughput wireless technology," he said.

The WiGig technology will hopefully get certification in mid-2013, and after that devices should appear on the market that support it, Sadri said.

Smart Connect takes another step

The company also showed off its Smart Connect technology, which lets idle devices sync with cloud services while keeping power consumption low.

The 'Spring Meadow' prototype uses advanced traffic analysis tools to make the network-interface card filter data and reduce the load upon the processor, thereby saving power.

With Spring Meadow, Intel is able to save about halve the compute power compared to current Intel chips. The company thinks the technology could eventually go into mobile processors.

Biometrics get an upgrade

Along with Smart Connect, the company showed off a biometric authentication technology that authenticates a user with their local device and then on their cloud service provider to let people do away with passwords.

The 'PalmSecure' technology works by recognising the unique patterns in the veins of peoples' palms. Once it authenticates the person on their local device it can send a message to a service provider via SAML or Open ID or another standard (Intel is still working out this part).

This authenticates the person with their service provider, such as a bank, and logs them in, all with the swipe of a palm.

No biometric information is sent from the device. In an onstage demo, attendees saw the system work by an Intel Labs employer holding their palm up to it. The system logged them in within a couple of seconds.

C-RAN: Turning base station kit into software

Finally, Intel demonstrated a prototype server for cutting the hardware cost of cellular base stations by swapping proprietary equipment for standard servers.

The Cloud Radio Access Networks (C-RAN) initiative lets Intel move "the heart of the radio access network to the cloud", Rattner said.

C-RAN is being co-developed with China Mobile. Intel demonstrated two SuperMicro servers running multiple base station software elements.

In the future, Intel and China Mobile hope to use undisclosed virtualisation methods to support up to 100 base stations in a single server.

However, when asked by a journalist from Computer Weekly whether Intel had been in talks with European telecommunications hardware suppliers about the technology, Rattner indicated it had had a frosty reception.

"Since you're turning radio access networks from what was largely a hardware business into what will be a software business, you can understand why they're relatively cool about it," Rattner said. "System suppliers have been relatively cool."

Towards a data-intensive future

Considering the keynote, it becomes clear that Intel is preparing to deliver technologies to support a future where everything is using more data. From the digital radio initiative, up through the Smart Connect and into the cloudification of base stations, Intel is betting that digital and software-based methods will supersede traditional analogue and hardware-based approaches for dealing with the expected flood of information.

The technologies also represent a strategic shift by Intel up from pure silicon and into other, related technologies. The message to take away is that though the processor is the lodestone of any modern piece of technology, the I/O layer is now receiving a huge level of investment as well.

"It used to be we'd come out and all we'd talk about was the silicon," Rattner said. "As we moved along we talked more and more about platforms and I think today, yesterday and the day before you've come to appreciate the focus we have on creating great experiences across the entire compute continuum. I'm sure we'll enjoy the ride into the future together."

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