Intel Details New Technologies Pushing Chips to Do More Work -- Projects to Improve Speed And Thwart Hackers Use The 'Multiple Brain' Model

By Don Clark
17 September 2003
This article originally appeared in: Wall Street Journal

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Intel Corp. is stepping up plans to use the equivalent of multiple brains, rather than one, to boost computer performance and improve security.

At a semiannual conference here for software and hardware developers, the chip maker discussed several technologies that let a single microprocessor do more chores simultaneously. Besides the company's perennial quest for more computing speed, Intel described several long-term efforts to divide up a chip's circuitry in ways that make a computer more resistant to crashes and hacker attacks.

Paul Otellini, Intel's president and chief operating officer, disclosed that the Santa Clara, Calif., company is working on a technology -- code-named Vanderpool -- that helps a personal computer run different kinds of operating software at the same time. That technique, sometimes called virtualization, has long been used on mainframe computers, and can help isolate a system's hardware from problems caused by viruses or software glitches.

Start-ups such as VMware Inc., a closely held company in Palo Alto, Calif., sell virtualization software now. But using special-purpose chip circuitry to help isolate the software can significantly improve performance, Mr. Otellini said. During a keynote speech, the company demonstrated a PC that continued to play videos while an Intel executive rebooted a separate operating system to download some game software.

Mr. Otellini, during the speech, said consumers can expect to see the Vanderpool technology within five years. But he hinted in a subsequent interview that the development might arrive much sooner than that. "We are working feverishly to bring it to market," he said.

Intel also gave an update on a previously announced technology, dubbed LaGrande, that is explicitly designed to wall off portions of a computer system from attacks. The company demonstrated how malicious hackers can steal information by distributing software that helps them monitor and steal private information as it is processed by PC keyboards, graphics circuitry and memory chips.

Such attacks are expected to be blocked by LaGrande, which modifies several chips in a PC and is designed to work with new security software that Microsoft Corp. is developing. The approaches have attracted controversy, however, in part out of concerns that they could make it easier to monitor the activities of PC users or prevent them from certain activities, such as sharing music or other sensitive data files.

Mr. Otellini pledged to market the technology, expected in two or three years, in such a way that consumers can continue to buy PCs without LaGrande, if they choose, or switch it off after they have purchased a PC. "We are very cognizant about the issues regarding privacy and user choice," he said.

Intel and other companies, of course, long have applied parallel-computing techniques to increase performance. The company already uses one technology, called Hyper-Threading, to let chips for some high-end personal computers and servers carry out some strings of instructions in parallel. Mr. Otellini said Intel plans to rapidly add Hyper-Threading to most mainstream desktop and notebook PCs.

Over the longer term, Intel plans to put the equivalent of multiple brains -- dubbed microprocessor "cores" -- on a single piece of silicon. The company plans to make a dual-core version of its popular Xeon family of chips for servers, as well as a doubled version of its high-end Itanium, over the next couple of years. Mr. Otellini also confirmed that Intel plans to later develop an even more multifaceted version of the Itanium 2, which analysts expect to have as many as 16 cores.

Division of Labor

Key directions in boosting computer power and security:

  • Multithreading: Circuitry and software that lets a chip carry out several instructions at the same time.
  • Multiprocessing: Design techniques that place the equivalent of several brains, or microprocessor cores, on a single chip.
  • Specialization: Creating special chunks of circuitry on a chip that are tuned to do one task, such as graphics.
  • Virtualization: A technology that isolates a computer's hardware from its software, so it can run multiple operating systems at once.
  • Compartmentalization: Walling off portions of chips or computers so they cannot be attacked by computer hackers or virus programs.