Intel’s roadmap will see the functions carried out by different components in a PC integrated into a single processor, the company has revealed.
"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.
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 co-processor 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 visualisation 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.
The changes underway at Intel will have repercussions beyond the PC. The company wants to see system-on-chip processors based on its version of x86, called Intel Architecture (IA), find their way into every computer imaginable, from the smallest handheld devices to the largest supercomputers.
"We're taking IA to very small things and to very big things, in terms of capabilities and performance," Gelsinger said, adding that "all other architectures are marginalised."
While the shift towards system-on-chip processors will yield more powerful chips that are cheaper and consume less power, the chips will be less flexible. They cannot be mixed and matched with other components in the same way that today's processors can. As a result, chipmakers like Intel will have to produce a wider range of products, each designed for a specific application or type of device.