IT on a chip

Hardware performance is about much more than clock speed and raw processing power these days, thanks to embedded functions that are helping do things from improving security to virtualizing servers.

Chip makers, including Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc., are ushering in a new era in processor design by adding hardware-enabled features to their wares. The goal is to either replace functions that have traditionally been done via software or, more often, significantly improve the operation of the software.

As an added bonus, those hardware-assisted processor functions improve overall system performance without increasing the heat generated, the vendors claim, allowing corporations to keep a lid on utility costs and reduce the need for exotic cooling strategies.

"This is something that has been coming for a long time," says Rick Sturm, president at Enterprise Management Associates. "It’s the natural course of evolution, and an affordable and rational thing to do to put some of this functionality down on the chip level."

As computer platforms and overall system management increase in complexity, IT professionals are demanding that systems have 100% availability, subsecond response times and instant problem resolution, Sturm says. Those goals are no longer strictly the purview of any one area -- silicon, software or human intervention -- but are now being addressed by taking advantage of advances on all fronts.

<i>The Charlotte Observer</i >'s Geoff Shorter originally adopted virtualization to save money, but thanks to hardware-based features, he is now looking forward to performance boosts, too.

The Charlotte Observer's Geoff Shorter originally adopted virtualization to save money, but thanks to hardware-based features, he is now looking forward to performance boosts, too.

Image Credit: Don Williamson/The Charlotte Observer "IT is strangling" from the costs of operations, Sturm says. "We’re spending so much money on management that it is preventing us from innovating and addressing the needs of business."

Early customers

The Charlotte Observer, North Carolina’s largest daily newspaper, in December began migrating some of the publication’s most important applications to a virtualized environment.

The paper is moving its Oracle-based circulation system database to servers that have Intel's new quad-core Xeon processors with baked-in, hardware-enabled virtualization technology. Also being placed on these same virtualized servers is the paper’s editorial content workflow system.

Management By Hardware
Management by hardware

The past year has seen the advent of hardware-assisted features within mainstream x86-based microprocessors from Intel and AMD. Even as the those chip vendors have turned to multicore implementations as the primary source for boosting performance, they are adding hardwired features into their processors and associated chip sets.

These features were previously left solely to software or were not addressed at all.

"We are looking hard at what technologies are right to be moved into silicon and placed within our platforms as opposed to technologies that need to stay in software," says Margaret Lewis, director of commercial solutions at AMD. "As a result, we are on the brink of a lot interesting new concepts in performance. It’s no longer simple. In many cases, it won’t be necessarily be how fast you complete a task, but how satisfied you are with the result."

AMD’s Trinity platform is intended to allow processors to handle virtualization, security and management. One of the first commercialized efforts has been technology originally developed under the code name Pacifica, to allow hardware to more easily run multiple operating systems.

Also introduced in the past year was AMD’s Torrenza platform. Torrenza uses AMD’s existing interconnect technology to allow third parties to create application-specific coprocessors that can work alongside AMD processors in multisocket systems.

For its part, Intel’s embedded IT capabilities include its already released Virtualization Technology, which like AMD’s Pacifica provides a hardware-enabled ability to more effectively create virtualized infrastructure installations. Also introduced by Intel is Active Management Technology (AMT), embedded in client-side processors. AMT allows IT managers to remotely access networked computing equipment — even those that lack a working operating system or hard drive or those that have been turned off.

Also in the works from Intel is I/O Acceleration Technology, a network accelerator that can break up the data-handling job among all the components in a server, including the processor, chip set, network controller and software. The distributed approach reduces the workload on the processors while accelerating the flow of data, Intel says.

Intel’s Trusted Execution Technology, originally code-named LeGrande Technology, is a set of hardware extensions to processors and chip sets that enhances security. The technology means to prevent software-based attacks and to protect the confidentiality and integrity of data stored or created on a client PC.

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