Intel has ambitions to turn modems into virtual servers and reinvent broadband

A few cores in your modem and OpenStack driving network function virtualisation

Intel Atom x5 and x7 Processors.

Intel has assembled a stack of technologies it thinks can give broadband modems a brain implant and change the nature of home broadband services.

At the core of Chipzilla's ambition, as Intel folk have explained to The Reg, is a plan to put x86 chippery into customer premises equipment (CPE) – the modem/router homes and smallish businesses use to connect to the internet.

Such devices are currently pretty dumb, pretty cheap, and pretty much MIPS-powered. Plenty run embedded Linux and a few have remote control apps, but the Linux is locked away and there's minimal scope for customisation at an individual level. Only the brave-hearted ever try re-flashing their gear with open-source firmware like DD-WRT.

Intel thinks that building x86s into CPE devices gives them the grunt to become more interesting and looks to be taking steps to make this happen more often.

The company already bakes not-too-shabby Atom cores into its PUMA range of DOCSIS 3.0 cable modems. Work is under way on DOCSIS 3.1 kit, too, to help deliver gigabit cable Internet performance. Intel's also acquired Lantiq, a big player in DSL modem system-on-chips. Lantiq's already playing in G.fast, the gigabit-speed successor to VDSL. It's hard to imagine Intel have bought Lantiq without pondering pairing its SoCs with x86 chips.

Faster and more powerful CPE devices are a bit of a so-what proposition. Until one considers that Intel packs full x86 cores into PUMA kit and will probably do the same for Lantiq. And by full cores we mean CPUs with all of Intel's virtualisation-friendly and networking bits included.

Virtualisation is important to this and Intel's story because it gives carriers a new way to deliver services to subscribers.

For years, internet service providers (ISPs) have been purveyors of bit pipes and little else. Plenty have been able to charge a buck or three a month for services like extra security, hosting or storage, but over-the-top services have nearly always won the day, as shown by the fact that Dropbox rules and ISPs like Australia's iiNet have exited the cloud storage and security business.

CPEs that can run virtual machines give the carrier a platform to push services onto the kit, if they can't be run in the cloud. Lightweight hypervisors aren't hard to find and won't strain a multi-core Atom box unduly.

Consider WAN optimisation, for example. Purveyors of that technology nearly always need to deploy software on-premises and in the data centre. Getting your average family or small business to install an app on every device to make that happen is asking for trouble.

Running it in an on-premises virtual machine spawned into the CPE with the only customer intervention being to click a box saying “Do you want faster downloads for $1/month?” is a lot more likely to have a happy ending.

Or consider firewall-as-a-service. Today, an ISP offering extra security probably routes customer traffic through an actual firewall. A smart CPE could run that firewall on premises. Or an ISP could deploy network function virtualisation (NFV) and run the firewall as a VM somewhere in its own infrastructure, removing the need for a dedicated firewall. The smart CPE gets to run a VPN to the firewall, to secure the whole connection.

Either way, it means the customer gets better security, without having to learn firewall administration.

How to get a firewall, WANop, or any other VM into a CPE? Enter OpenStack, which has no trouble spawning and managing VMs all over the place.

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