For years, the guts of a PC remained largely unchanged. In one product generation after another, Intel processors connected to a chip set 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' 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.
In 2008, the company will ship its first Nehalem processors, which will be manufactured using a 45-nanometer process and include an integrated memory controller, eliminating the need for a front-side bus.
At roughly the same time, Intel will begin shipments of Tolapai, a system-on-chip that includes an x86 processor, integrated chipset, and an encryption coprocessor for server appliances. A similar chip based on components for consumer electronics, such as integrated graphics, is also slated to enter production next year.
These chips are a hint of what Intel has in store for the future. "You can expect to see us do a wider range of system-on-chip solutions," Gelsinger said, noting that many applications, such as mobile computing, are well suited for these types of chips.
And more is coming. Intel's Larrabee chip, now under development, will pack dozens of x86-compatible processor cores onto a single chip. Billed as an alternative to general-purpose graphics processors, Larrabee will be a programmable and highly parallel processor capable of processing graphics and visualization workloads, such as fluid modelling and ray tracing, Gelsinger said.
In time, these functions could also be integrated into the system-on-chip processor, eliminating the need for external graphics chips.