The need for speed

"Like sands through the hourglass." For many years that phrase brought to mind a popular daytime soap opera. But for millions who now spend the days of their lives in front of a PC, the hourglass icon represents time slipping away as they wait for an application to start or a Web page to load.

And as security programs, desktop applications and the Internet continue to make greater demands on computer power, microprocessor manufacturers have been producing faster and faster processors.

"The Army is moving to a managed environment with ongoing security issues we have to resolve," said Al Custis, a computer engineer with the Army Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) Information Systems Engineering Command's Technology Integration Center, Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

To handle software updates, hardware problems and security behind the scenes, "you need a platform powerful enough to do those tasks — and your existing work, like word processing — or you get the hourglass signs and have to wait for the system to catch up with what you're trying to do," Custis said.

To meet those demands, Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) have started shipping processors with clock speeds in excess of 1 GHz.

Intel's Pentium 4 is the fastest the company has produced and can reach speeds of about 1.5 GHz, which is about twice the clock speed of the typical business PC processor, the 750 MHz Pentium III. And AMD last month introduced the 1.33 GHz Athlon processor.

But some people question whether most federal government desktop users need those speeds to do their everyday tasks.

"Overall, with processor speeds and software the way it is, people probably don't need the 1 GHz [machines] now," said Kevin Knox, director of enterprise segment marketing and business development at AMD. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't have them today, he said.

"It's excellent investment protection for a lot of these organizations, especially with their budgets, when they don't know how long they are going to be holding onto PCs," he said. "They don't want to get caught down the road with processors that can't keep up with the software they want to run," such as streaming video, encryption and virus protection.

At the Technology Integration Center, Custis evaluates products for Army customers, including the Army Small Computer Program, and he has used both the Pentium 4 and high-speed Athlon processors. In Custis' view, the fast processors can be used today by mainstream federal users to boost productivity instead of "waiting for the hourglass to clear itself."

He said that even when a PC is turned on in the morning and runs a virus- detection program, users must "wait for quite a while for the system to stabilize before they start using it."

Enabling people to use the applications they need on a daily basis is one of the reasons processor speeds are on the rise, Knox said. "It's all driven by applications and productivity for the end users," he said. Without the faster speeds, "you'll have a disconnect, and the user gets frustrated and doesn't want to use those applications."

David Everard, government district manager in Intel's business development organization, agreed that applications are driving up processor speeds. Video via the Internet or local-area networks, scientific computing tasks and geographic information systems are becoming increasingly prevalent in agencies, he said.

The FBI, for example, recently replaced some of its reel-to-reel wiretapping equipment with digital systems and subsequently required faster processors to handle real-time audio recording and compression for reliable storage, Everard said.

The Cost of Speed

Agencies that want to take advantage of the high-speed processors will have to buy entirely new systems because the new processors are incompatible with existing systems. A typical desktop configuration equipped with the Pentium 4 or Athlon 1.33 GHz costs about $2,000.

But cost shouldn't be a deal-breaker, and the lack of backward compatibility is "an unfortunate part of life," Custis said. "Cost is always a concern, and the Small Computer Program is trying to drive costs down as best we can," he said. "By Christmas time, it's going to be all Pentium 4s [and high-speed Athlons] that people are buying."

AMD's Knox said short-term costs need to be weighed against long-term usability. "Five years from now, 1 GHz is still going to be good enough to run the majority of applications they want to run, but with 500 to 600 MHz machines [in use today], I doubt they will be able to keep up with the application changes on the horizon," he said.

Intel's Everard said regulated replacement cycles for government information technology systems make it particularly important to plan for the future.

"The impression that government is behind the commercial world in faster PC adoption is becoming less and less true," he said. "The smarter federal government IT buyers realize that they need to buy high to have headroom, especially when their replacement cycle is mandated by regulations. The idea is that it could be three more years before we get appropriations to replace the new PCs, so we better get one that will functionally last that long."

A number of agencies are testing 1.2 GHz and faster Athlon processors, particularly the Defense Department, said Rick Indyke, business development manager for government and education at AMD. He said the feedback from those users has been positive, and he agreed with his Intel competitor that budget concerns make it important to have systems now that will continue to be useful.

Government buyers want high performance without having to pay top-of-the-line prices, said Louis Toledo, chief of the information appliances branch at the Air Force Standard Systems Group's Commercial Information Technology-Product Area Directorate (CIT-PAD) headquarters at Maxwell Air Force Base, Gunter Annex, Ala.

He said the Air Force follows the industry and the commercial marketplaces and that as new processors are announced, "we provide them on our blanket purchase agreements."

"The government customers are buying at the sweet spot in the processor curve and not at the top," Toledo said. "Some customers, labs and [research and development] units, for example, have a greater need to keep up with the latest technology and are buying at the top. We work closely with our industry partners in keeping our BPAs refreshed to meet customer requirements."

There are seven computers available through BPAs at CIT-PAD that have high-speed processors, three offering 1.5 GHz speeds and the remaining four featuring 1 GHz, Toledo said.

The Army's Custis said security-related and other applications will continue to be developed that require 1 GHz and faster processors. And with fewer people to operate those systems, productivity becomes an issue. "We're losing people in government," Custis said. "The only way to make up for that is higher productivity, and you need tools to make that happen."

Processors running in excess of 1 GHz need to be in that toolbox, he said.

Living by the clock

The brain of a PC is its micro-processor, which is a complete computational engine on a single silicon chip. One measure of a microprocessor's performance is clock speed, which determines how quickly it handles basic instructions.

Clock speed is determined by the frequency of vibrations from an oscillator, which sends pulses to the central processing unit. Clock speed is usually measured in megahertz, or millions of pulses per second, and speeds of several hundred megahertz are typical. In the newest processors, however, clock speeds exceed 1 GHz, or 1 billion pulses per second.

Clock speed is only one of many factors that determine how well a computer will perform.

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