From Intel Inside to Inside Intel

IT conferences come in all shapes and sizes, with participants ranging from tens of thousands of general technology enthusiasts to mere hundreds of professionals with highly specialized skills. Intel’s annual Developer Forum (IDF) is relatively small compared to CES and Oracle OpenWorld, but attendees include the crucial partners who create and bring to market innovative new products based on Intel’s silicon.

IDF events tend to follow a relatively predictable pattern based on Intel’s “tick/tock” development cycle. The “tick” denotes announcements of upcoming silicon processes that will notably increase transistor density and enhance performance and energy efficiency. The company also introduces next-gen versions of previous microprocessor offerings. The following “tock” finds Intel delivering a new microarchitecture and highlighting partner solutions that take full advantage of those improvements.

By any measure, IDF 2010 should have qualified as a banner “tick” event. During his opening keynote at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, company CEO Paul Otellini stated that Intel’s development of its next-generation 22nm (aka Ivy Bridge) microarchitecture is proceeding as expected and that commercial solutions are set to arrive in 2H 2011. At the same time, he said that second-gen Intel Core (aka Sandy Bridge) processors will be available early next year.

New Tack

Then Otellini took the audience in an unexpected direction, however, noting that Intel is shifting its focus to accommodate the challenges and opportunities of a “new marketplace for pervasive computing.” In part, this market represents an evolutionary continuation of commonplace IT industry trends: There are currently about 1.4 billion PCs worldwide, with another million sold every day. But other wired and wirelessly connected IT products, including smartphones and tablets, are proliferating rapidly — along with thousands of new “smart” embedded devices.

Otellini described the result of these developments as a vastly complex, digitally enabled world with more than 4 billion connected people, 31 billion connected devices, 50 trillion GB of stored data and 25 million applications. In order for IT customers to successfully participate in, manage, maintain and make sense of this world, vendors will have to take a substantially different approach to what they have done in the past. For Intel, this means a fundamental strategic shift toward delivering “more complete” hardware and software platforms, and related services.

Understanding what exactly Otellini meant by “complete platforms” requires a bit of historical context. By 1990, though PC sales were growing steadily, personal computing was still a relatively small market populated with dozens of vendors that interacted with consumers and business customers, as well as component manufacturers that supplied those vendors. In 1991, Intel launched its “Intel Inside” marketing campaign, becoming the first component manufacturer to directly communicate with and influence computer buyers.

Intel Inside is so commonplace today that it is difficult to imagine the IT industry without this high-tech equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. More practically, the campaign helped Intel cement its position as the IT industry’s dominant microprocessor vendor. What does this have to do with IDF 2010? Just this: Intel’s embrace of more complete platform development will require the integration of what have often been standalone applications, software and technologies into the company’s microprocessors. That, in turn, represents a dramatic, diametric change for the company — effectively shifting strategic focus from Intel Inside to “Inside Intel.”

Better Performance, Better Security

How will this work exactly? Consider the next-gen Sandy Bridge Core processors due next year. Some new features are based on refinements of Intel’s 32nm technologies, which will improve overall performance and power efficiency. However, their biggest additions are what Otellini called “visual computing” technologies integrated directly into the microprocessor, and robust new security and management features. This focus on visual computing is a response to what David Perlmutter, GM of Intel’s architecture group, described as the incorporation of increasingly sophisticated audio, video and pictures into the user experience.

Typically, supporting sophisticated graphics requires add-on cards like those produced by Nvidia and ATI. In contrast, new Core products will include a built-in processor graphics engine designed to enhance HD video, 3D, mainstream gaming, multi-tasking, online socializing and multimedia performance, while also maintaining system energy efficiency. The graphics engine will be able to fully and independently leverage Core features such as Turbo Boost, but it will remain idle until triggered by specific applications.

The result will be significantly better performance and quality in numerous media-intensive workloads, but Intel also expects developers to leverage the graphics processor in other applications and processes, including video analytics, proximity and sensing/analysis. The new Core chips will also support integrated security features, including enhanced malware detection and prevention, which should significantly improve identity protection and fraud deterrence processes.

Business clients will be able to better secure their data and IT assets while deploying more effective system patching, recovery strategies and processes. Security is hardly a new concern at Intel. The company’s vPro technologies have long supplied businesses the mechanisms and means for more effectively securing and managing employee PCs and notebooks. Intel’s recent acquisition of McAfee indicates that the company has moved security directly onto the front burner via what it calls an “optimized security architecture.”

Considering the increasingly sophisticated online threats users face, along with the complex compliance and regulatory requirements to which businesses must adhere, these efforts should be well received. They also point to the broader potential impact of Intel’s forward-looking acquisitions strategy, which includes last year’s deal for embedded systems leader Wind River, the recent purchase of Infineon’s wireless solutions business, and the planned deal for Texas Instruments’ cable modem business. Bottom line: Security features and services will likely play prominent roles across numerous future Intel solutions.

Consolidation Craze

All this sounds good, but how successful is the company’s complete platform strategy likely to be? First, Intel is hardly alone in the pursuit of folding value-added graphics into its microprocessors. Direct competitor AMD is heavily engaged in a similar effort (leveraging technologies acquired in its ATI deal). In addition, GPU specialist Nvidia and Qualcomm with its ARM-based Snapdragon chips have been turning up the heat on Intel in other discreet markets.

More broadly, consolidation seems to be the strategy du jour for IT vendors of every sort, with HP’s purchase of 3Par and ArcSight qualifying as just the latest high-stakes deals in an ongoing industry growth-through-acquisition spree.

These are interesting points, but the real question related to IDF 2010 is how effectively Intel’s new products and strategy will resonate among company developer and OEM partners. The results of previous Intel offerings may be the best way to gauge the potential of these latest efforts.

Introduced just four years ago, Intel’s vPro now runs on more than 55 million business PCs and notebooks, and more than 500 Intel OEM and developer partners are leveraging the technology in their solutions. Virtualization enhancements in Xeon 5500 (Nehalem) processors have helped OEMs develop servers that offer return on investment (ROI) in as little as two months, a factor that has spurred server upgrades and helped Intel-based systems gain some 7 percent of market share during the past year.

At this point, it’s impossible to determine whether Intel’s newest products and its focus on complete platform solutions will enjoy similar success. However, the company achieved its current leadership position by anticipating end-users’ needs and giving developers the tools they required to create innovative solutions. With that in mind, the new technologies and features inside Intel products, which aim to make a place for Intel inside most every new market opportunity for pervasive computing, appear to be just the latest incarnations of a well-considered, -established and -received long-term company strategy.

E-Commerce Times columnist Charles King is principal analyst for Pund-IT, an IT industry consultancy that emphasizes understanding technology and product evolution, and interpreting the effects these changes will have on business customers and the greater IT marketplace.

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