PCs go double time

Ever since PCs became powerful enough to earn a spot in the workplace, technology managers have grown accustomed to periodic performance boosts that let them deploy larger, more complex software applications at lower prices. As microprocessor technology has evolved, chip makers have reached critical points at which the traditional ways of boosting performance have become less effective and new ones must be developed.

Vendors are again at such a crossroads. However, the introduction in the PC market this year of dual-core chips, in which two processors are built on a single chip, promises to keep the performance boosts coming.

"Users have come to expect hardware performance to increase significantly each year, and dual-core processing represents the best way for vendors to continue that progression," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at market research firm Insight 64.

As a result, government users expect to be able to run sophisticated applications, such as image analysis or geographic information systems, on their desktop PCs as easily as they operate word processing or e-mail applications.

Unlike other chip developments, dual-core technology will disrupt the current state of affairs to some degree. For one, developers will need to rewrite software applications to take advantage of the new chip design, though they won't run worse if left unchanged. Also, some software vendors are saying they will raise license prices if their products are run on dual-core systems.

Doubling up

To date, the most effective method for boosting PC performance has been improving a microprocessor's clock speed. In a nutshell, as clock speeds increase, chips process more data in the same amount of time. Unfortunately, clock increases have become more difficult to deliver.

"As vendors have tried to improve performance by boosting a microprocessor's clock, they've found it more difficult to solve the problems that come along with it, like the need for additional power and heat leakages," said Kevin Krewell, a senior analyst at market research firm In-Stat.

Dual-core technology offers an alternative to the reliance on clock improvements. In the new approach, a single chip has two execution cores, or computational engines. The multicore processor plugs directly into a processor socket, and the operating system views it as one processor.

However, because the chip can divvy the computational work among multiple execution cores, the processor performs more work within a given time period than a single-core chip. Actual performance benchmarks are not yet available, but analysts expect a performance boost as high as 50 percent in some circumstances.

Like many hardware advances, dual-core technology started off in high-end workstations from vendors such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems. But now Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Intel are poised to drive usage into desktop and laptop PCs. Later this year, Intel officials plan to add dual-core functions to their Xeon desktop microprocessor, and AMD officials plan to add the technology to their Opteron server chip.

Technology experts have talked about dual-core systems since the early 1990s, but microprocessor vendors have only now found a way to deliver them. "Recently, circuitry improved so vendors can station a large number of transceivers in a small area," Krewell said.

In addition to reducing circuitry size, vendors had to overcome power and heat problems. The more processing power a system generates, the more heat it creates. To address the challenges, vendors developed various techniques to cool systems while making sure they had sufficient power. AMD's PowerNow technology helps a system minimize power consumption, while HP's Whisper Quiet fans reduce the heat and noise computers generate.

As dual-core systems make their way to desktop PCs, users may benefit in a couple of ways. More power means that larger, more complex computational processes can be completed faster, so government agencies may soon find it easier to justify deploying engineering and data analysis applications, for example, to a greater number of users.

"The advent of dual-core technology should help government agencies deploy GIS systems, applications that require visualization and those that work with satellite data," said Jeff Wood, director of marketing for HP's global workstation business.

But a few steps must be taken before users realize those benefits. "To take advantage of dual-core technology, an application has to be rewritten so the different processors complete small portions of the required tasks," Brookwood said.

Software vendors have already completed similar work for workstations and supercomputers to enable multiple processors to handle different tasks simultaneously. That work should make it easy for software vendors to revise their applications for dual-core systems, Brookwood said.

In addition, developers of desktop PC microprocessors have been adding threading features that allow systems to process a number of items at one time. A growing number of applications take advantage of that feature.

"Since 2002, 150 applications have been designed to take advantage of our Hyper-Threading Technology feature," said Jeff Austin, product marketing manager for desktop systems at Intel. Operating systems such as Linux, Microsoft Windows XP and Unix have recently been enhanced to support threading features.

In addition to processing complex applications faster, multicore capabilities can help users complete tasks more effectively. "As a user works in the foreground with an e-mail application, virus protection and security checking software can run in the background without impacting system performance," said Vic Bhagat, product marketing manager at AMD.

Because of the potential benefits, vendors are moving quickly to adopt dual-core technology. AMD and Intel officials expect to add dual-core features to the bulk of their microprocessors by the end of 2006. By then, Intel officials expect that more than 85 percent of the company's server processors and more than 70 percent of its mobile and desktop Pentium processors will ship with dual-core technology.

Others are not so optimistic. "Desktop systems are a mature technology, one where users gradually migrate to new technologies, so in a year, at most a third of their desktop systems will have dual-core processors," said Kim Stevenson, a vice president at EDS.

As dual-core processing works it way into organizations, users can expect other enhancements to follow. "In the server space, we've seen vendors move from one processor to two processors and then to four-processor systems," Brookwood said. "As vendors become comfortable with dual-core technology, I expect them to follow a similar path and deliver four-core and eight-core processors."

As the PC's 25-year history has shown, such advances are business as usual.

Korzeniowski is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Mass., who specializes in technology issues. He can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com.

Will software vendors double dip?

Adding support for new dual-core microprocessors is a no-brainer for PC suppliers. The advance increases system performance, making suppliers’ products more attractive to users. For software vendors, however, the impact is less clear.

“Software vendors are struggling with how to price their dual-core systems,” said Kim Stevenson, a vice president at EDS.

Traditionally, software licensing models have been based on the premise that users pay for each system, which has been equivalent to each processor. Now that users can soon have PCs with the equivalent of two processors, should they be charged twice as much?

That question has generated many answers. Oracle officials have said they plan to require one software license for each processor, so a dual-core chip would require two licenses, a plan government consumers may resist.

“Cost is an important issue in the government space, and agencies may be turned off by some vendors’ dual core pricing plans,” said Alfred Toussaint, federal marketing manager at Intel.

Microsoft officials have said they are taking the opposite approach and plan to charge dual-core users as if they were operating systems with one central processor.

In a third take on the issue, BEA Systems officials said they plan to impose a surcharge of about 25 percent on dual-core system users.

As a result of the different approaches, pricing confusion may reign in the short term. “When examining software that runs on dual-core systems, it will be difficult for users to make apples-to-apples pricing comparisons,” said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at market research firm Insight 64.

Eventually, vendors are expected to choose a consistent pricing model. “Initially, pricing may offer vendors a way to differentiate their applications, but eventually, one model will prove popular and they will all follow it,” Stevenson said.

— Paul Korzeniowski

Where dual-core chips will debut

Chip makers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) plan to add dual-core processors to their server, desktop PC and notebook PC product lines, but they are taking slightly different deployment paths. Intel officials are focusing first on desktop computers and later on servers; AMD is taking the opposite approach.

Desktop computers have been Intel’s stronghold. “Intel has been a mass-market microprocessor supplier, so the best way to push dual-core technology into the mainstream is by delivering it on the desktop,” said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at market research firm Insight 64.

But is the desktop computer the logical place to start using dual-core products? “Dual-core processing is geared to applications that require a lot more processing power,” said Kevin Krewell, senior analyst at In-Stat. “My sense is few desktop users now view system performance as a problem and will be willing to pay more for dual-core technology.”

At least initially, analysts expect hardware vendors to charge a premium for their dual-core systems, but how much more will not be clear until they announce their systems later this year.

The chip vendors also have their sights set on the laptop computer market. The dividing line between desktop and laptop computers has been fading, but dual-core technology may not mesh with laptops. Vendors have been struggling to deliver battery systems that operate for more than a few hours, and heat dissipation is also a challenge.

“If you put your laptop on your lap, it will quickly become quite warm,” said Kim Stevenson, a vice president at EDS. “Putting more sophisticated processors in these systems will only make them hotter.”

So although dual-core technology is expected to become a staple in desktop and laptop computers and servers, no one will know which area will catch on quickest until after the systems start to ship.

— Paul Korzeniowski

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