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

Mark Hachman | July 24, 2013
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.

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 Waxman
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 MMX
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.

 

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