Making connections: The world according to Intel

Evolution explained

Broken CD with wrench

With the year winding down, I'd like to pull out a crystal ball and peer in. It is not my crystal ball I want to examine here but rather Intel's.

Let's start with the networking. We all know that Intel makes networking gear. Specifically, it makes some of the best PC network interface cards (NICs) available.

It should be a shock to no one, then, that Intel is going whole-hog on 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE). Expect to see server LAN on motherboard ports moved entirely to 10GBase-T (10GbE over copper) very shortly.

Intel is also kicking up its 10GbE discrete card line, including some very serious investments into converged networking.

Let's talk about that converged networking for a moment. Until now, you could run Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) only if you had the right NIC.

Intel's idea is different: it is pushing FCoE as a software stack. It calls it Open FCoE. The idea here is that – like CIFS, NFS or iSCSI – anyone with any NIC could choose to run FCoE.

Bolt from the blue

Compliant NICs will do task offloading so the FCoE hit doesn't impinge upon the processor, but it is not a requirement to use Open FCoE. Naturally, Intel's NICs support this, just as they support offloading for all sorts of other networking bits.

Intel's take interests me. The vendor chose not to attempt TCP offloading as an all-or-nothing option. Most operating systems can't get it right, and in some cases full TCP offloading conflicts with various applications.

Intel chose instead to offer the ability to offload elements of the TCP stack one at a time, so you can turn off various bits if they break things.

Another interesting nugget to emerge has been a discussion about Thunderbolt, a 10Gb interface. Does Intel have any plans to use it for networking? The company has said emphatically no.

Intel intends to treat Thunderbolt as a desktop bus interface. There's really nothing that prevents someone from creating a Thunderbolt NIC, but that is not the same as using Thunderbolt as an inter-system interconnect.

Intel is clear here: Thunderbolt is about connecting things to your computer, not connecting computers to one another.

Doomed desktop

Intel's future is not a radical departure but an evolution. According to the writing that has been on the wall for a while now, we are going to ditch the desktop as we know it.

Workstations will still be around, but they will be a lot more niche. USB will connect our widgets to our Ultrabooks, and Thunderbolt will connect our Ultrabooks to their monitors.

Those monitors will contain things like powerful external graphics cards, wired networking and the sorts of static peripherals we already expect from our desktops. Keep your eye on that 27in Apple Thunderbolt monitor. Paired with a Macbook Air Ultrabook-style device, this is Intel's desktop of the future.

Intel prefers to evolve these standards rather than continue to see rampant interface proliferation. It is backing USB, Thunderbolt and Ethernet.

In Intel’s vision of the future of computer connectivity, these are to be the interfaces of the next decade. ®

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