How Intel's modded chips make your smartphone a better listener

For years, Intel and other chip makers designed processors like stock engines, dropping them into PCs, notebooks, and servers. Now, Intel has shown a newfound willingness to mod custom silicon for server customers, tweaking them with hardware and software accelerators to improve their performance.

These same servers are the ones powering cloud applications that include email and storage, but also interpret the gestures and spoken commands of smartphone users. On Monday, for example, Intel and Nuance Communications disclosed that Intel is developing an accelerator to improve Nuance’s voice recognition, which powers as many as 6 billion connected devices, according to Sean Brown, Nuance’s senior manager of innovation.

Intel has also developed custom chips for both eBay and Facebook, said Jason Waxman, general manager of Intel’s data center group, at an Intel datacenter event on Monday.

Intel’s Jason WaxmanIntel
Intel’s Jason Waxman holds a server motherboard.

The bottom line? By specifically improving these cloud functions, smartphone and PC users will see their performance increase over time, for free, with new capabilities. “With advanced natural language processing, you can really say anything to [connected devices] and have a natural response,” Nuance’s Brown said. “But the personal systems of tomorrow will be proactive, when you need it automatically.”

What’s an accelerator?

Intel has been designing “accelerators” for decades, Waxman explained, dating back to the MultiMedia eXtensions (MMX) instruction set that it shipped with 1997’s Pentium MMX. Those chips included dedicated hardware registers that were designed to accelerate software written with the MMX software in mind, a technique that Intel used with subsequent chips up to and including its Core processors. Most of today’s server chips ship with dedicated hardware logic blocks on board designed to specifically accelerate functions like encryption. Accelerators for technologies like Nuance take the same approach, but are optimized for a single company.

Intel Pentiium MMXIntel
Intel’s Pentium with MMX Technology.

Meanwhile, incoming Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich has invited non-competing chip customers to manufacture their chips at Intel’s own fabs, analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights and Strategy noted. Intel has had partners that would like Intel to design accelerators around their technology, but lacked the resources, Waxman said. The new spirit of collaboration benefits both sides.

Waxman referred to Intel’s new approach as an “SoC methodology,” an industry term for the systems-on-a-chip (SoC) approach used by many consumer manufacturers, including rival AMD, to optimize chips for specific products.

As an example of Intel’s commitment to custom chips, Intel announced a 14-nm “Broadwell SOC,” Intel’s first semi-custom chip, that will ship as part of Intel’s Atom line in 2014 or later. For years, Intel has shipped its Xeon chip to server customers, but recent shifts in the server space caused Intel to beef up its Atom tablet and set-top chip line to address enterprise customers.

Only the nimblest survive

In part, Intel’s hand is being forced by ARM and the smartphones and tablets that those chips power. ARM is riding three trends: first, a general shift away from the PC—Intel’s center of power—to slimmer, cheaper, tablets and smartphones. That’s a segment of the market Intel hopes to address with its Atom processor, whose “Bay Trail” derivative could power Windows and Atom tablets and convertibles as low as $150 by the holidays.

Intel has already begun mixing and matching chips to various customer segments.

An ARM chip.

”The first thing [that’s different about Intel] is that they’re using an array of products,” said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. “If you go back a few years, they designed a chip for the desktop, and then they optimized it a little bit for mobile, and they put a bigger cache on it and called it [a] server [chip]. And there were three basic markets being served by one design. And now, they’re taking stuff that was designed for mobile... Atom stuff, that can also can go into servers, with server stuff. And now they’re taking another chip that they designed for a laptop, and they’re beefing that up... for desktops.”

The second trend that benefits ARM is that ARM, unlike Intel, doesn’t manufacture its own chips. Instead, it licenses its processors as essentially a kit—intellectual property that can be used as is, or surrounded with a chip designer’s own peripheral logic. That’s forced Intel’s hand, Moorhead said. “So they’re going to have to be custom, and more flexible, to keep their 95 percent market share,” Moorhead said of Intel.

Finally, while the PC has remained generally unchanged for decades, server manufacturers have shown a willingness to optimize their servers for specific functions, known as “disaggregation”. Currently, racks of servers perch one over the other in a server chassis, all with their own CPU, storage, and memory. Eventually, the idea is that servers will have “pools” of computing, storage, and I/O resources, much like the a bunch of flash chips are combined together to make a single flash “drive”.

In recent years, Intel has arguably invested more in the server space than it has in the PC, into software, services, networking, storage, and other areas. For right now, the trend is toward custom-designed servers, with specific applications in mind.

“Flexibility is the key, because the architecture is disaggregating, meaning the only way to efficiency in the datacenter is workload by workload, where virtualization is not cutting it,” Moorhead said. “In the scale out data center, you have to have a specific server type for a server workload, whether it be Web tier, data mining, Hadoop or otherwise.”

The talk now is of a software-defined future, where applications “ask” for resources, which are managed by a central server—powered by Intel, the company hopes. ARM is hoping to cash in on the third trend, with low-power 64-bit server processors it will ship later this year. For right now, however, Intel hopes it can control the conversation—part of the reason executives are holed up with analysts and customers this week.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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