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The differences that silicon can make to the desktop

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Workshop Looking at the sleek laptops, all-in-one and small form factor PCs of today, they have changed beyond all recognition compared to the deskbound, utilitarian behemoths of even a decade ago. Much of this change is thanks to the evolution and integration of the internal components of PCs, enabled by advances in manufacturing processes that have led to a huge increase in the number of transistors on individual chips.

Functions that used to be on individual and separate chips, such as the CPU, the graphics chip and controllers for memory and I/O, have been brought together to reside on fewer physical chips. The latest generations of chips are moving towards a single chip containing all the essential functions necessary to build a PC, and are often termed a “System on a Chip” or SoC.

Integrating all these components has had a number of positive effects. Multiple CPU cores can increase system responsiveness and performance when running multiple applications. Performance has also been boosted by integration, since moving the components such as GPU, memory and I/O closer together allows for more effective communications directly on the die, rather than having to cross different chip boundaries and busses. Reducing off-chip communications – often one of the highest consumers of energy - has the effect of reducing power consumption, and because the integrated components can be better optimised as they are designed together, the power efficiency can be further improved.

The great thing is that this performance increase literally comes for free, without requiring additional operating system and application software development effort. The functions are compatible with what has gone before, but work much better. It allows the latest operating systems and business applications to run well, while also supporting many of the media and entertainment applications that users often wish to use - even with corporate kit. Another very tangible side-effect of the increasing integration is the ability to build thinner, smaller and lighter PCs that make less noise and run much cooler. Better performance and nicer looks without more effort - just the things that end-users are typically the most vocal about when unhappy.

The other path that designers have followed is to add new functions and capabilities to the chips. These may include instructions to accelerate security functions such as encryption, or specialised co-processors that can help with management functionality. They may also include modifications that allow the graphics processor (GPU) to act as a co-processor to speed up certain high-performance applications. This approach has a lot of potential to add value.

Some of the new features are pretty easy to take advantage of, but in many cases they may also require a lot of additional investment in tools and specific software developments for the benefits to be recognised. A good example is the move to 64-bit computing. AMD introduced 64-bit extensions to the x86 architecture in 2003, and these required modifications to the operating system and applications in order to be used.

Taking advantage of the 64-bit functions has required moving to a different version of the operating system and applications which is a big undertaking – for example, Adobe Flash, which is very widely used for web applications and video content, does not yet support 64-bit browsers. The result is a slow migration targeted where the limitations of 32-bit have been felt most acutely such as applications requiring large amounts of memory.

One of the most important extensions is also the most overlooked - the management capabilities being built into business PCs. On-going operational costs and user support generally outweigh the initial purchase cost of a PC, often by an order of magnitude. Modern enterprise PCs include capabilities in the silicon platform to enable remote management and patching, OS re-installation, and more effective user support through keyboard, video and mouse sharing, even if the operating system cannot boot.

The problem is that few companies as yet have started to take advantage of the management features built natively into the silicon. Part of this is due to the lack of visibility of the new features, as they require additional software to realise the value. Many of the leading management solutions now integrate with technologies such as Intel vPro, which can help ease adoption, but arguably these features should come with at least basic tools to allow them to be used out of the box.

Just as big a problem is that awareness of the management capabilities of the silicon is low, and is coupled with a mix of capabilities within the PC environment. Some PCs – notably consumer based PCs, older PCs and some laptops - will lack the management capabilities, while some will have only a partial set of features and still others the full set.

Without a strategy to approach utilising this inbuilt management capability, the installed base remains at risk of being mixed ability. With substantial improvements in operational costs and risk mitigation potentially up for grabs, it is worth investigating what the minimum standard in hardware management features should be so that when the time is ripe, the installed PC base is ready to participate. ®

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