February 16, 2004 9:35 PM PST

Intel offers peek at future chips

Intel will give a glimpse of what the insides of computers might look like in a few years when it presents research results at a conference this week.

Researchers from the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker will present papers at the International Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco that will describe, among other projects, a low-power, high-speed arithmetic logic unit (ALU) that can run both 32-bit and 64-bit code. This, in turn, could allow the company to make Pentium-class chips that could run both types of software. The ALU churns calculations with whole numbers instead of decimals.

Another paper will outline an input-output protocol that moves data at 8 gigabits per second in a parallel fashion that could replace some internal links inside PCs in a few years. Current parallel links move much slower. A third paper, filed in conjunction with memory makers Samsung and Infineon, will show how memory can be linked in a different manner inside PCs to speed up data traffic.

Other papers will detail how Intel has made high-speed oscillators, a key component for radios, out of silicon. Typically, these are made from exotic materials such as Indium Phosphide. By 2005, Intel hopes to be producing silicon radios and, eventually, radios that can roam between different bands, said Krishnamurthy Soumyanath, director of communications circuits research at the company.

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There is no guarantee that any of these exact inventions will get embodied in future products, said Shekhar Borkar, director of circuit research at Intel. In the past, however, inventions and ideas described in papers at this conference often wind up in the market in a few years.

The ALU runs at more than 7GHz in 32-bit mode and at 4GHz in 64-bit mode. Compared with existing Intel ALUs, the prototype unit increases performance by 20 percent and reduces power consumption by 56 percent, Borkar said. In the Pentium 4 family, the ALU runs at twice the speed of the chip, so the part would fit into a Pentium 4 style chip that would run at 3.5GHz.

The ALU, made on the 90-nanometer process, could be inserted into either Pentium-class chips (so they could run 64-bit software) or Itanium chips (so they could run standard Windows code better), said sources close to the company. The company is looking at a few different ALUs, sources said. Borkar declined to comment on product plans, but said it could go into a next-generation Pentium-style chip.

While the ALU would improve processor performance, the paper on memory describes a way to cure one of the chronic bottlenecks inside computers: getting data in and out of memory.

In the Intel-Samsung-Infineon proposal, memory chips would shuttle data between one other at 3.6 gigabits per second and then to a memory controller, which would feed data to a processor. This would allow data stored in memory chips physically remote from the processor to get to the intended destination more rapidly.

Advanced Micro Devices already uses similar "point-to-point" connections, called HyperTransport, with its Opteron chip. The high-speed link, however, connects the processor to other processors or central communication hubs. Memory chips do not connect directly to one other.

 

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