Intel Corp.’s push into low-power processing chips has been years in the making, but the giant company is gaining ground with its latest generation of products. The new Atom C2000 family will compete in a range of markets that include dense servers, low-power storage devices and more power-efficient network equipment.
All the new products have strong ties to the company’s Austin engineering center on South MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1), where much of the design takes place on key components — called processing cores — for the new chips. Intel employs more than 1,000 workers in Austin, many of them chip designers.
No precise performance figures are available yet, but the company has said broadly said that the new chips are expected to deliver about four times the performance of the previous generation at the same power consumption level.
Some of the gains come from advanced manufacturing processes and new transistor designs. And some are from advanced design features, such as internal circuitry that monitors the chip for hot spots and can rapidly adjust the chip’s operation for higher performance or greater power savings.
For engineers who have been with Intel for years in Austin, being part of a well-regarded new product generation is heartening. The first engineering work on the new generation started in Austin in 2008.
“The morale at the Austin (company) site is probably about as high as we have every seen it,” said Belli Kuttanna,an Intel Fellow and chief architect for low-power processors. Kuttanna was among the first engineers to join Intel when the company opened its Austin design center in the late 1990s.
“These are exciting times,” he said. “It is a good time to be here.”
Intel built much of its business by being the critical technology supplier to the personal computer market. That still accounts for a huge part of its business, even though PC sales are in the middle of a historic slump.
So the company is pushing into new markets where it hasn’t dominated in the past. And it is going up against tough new competitors, many of whom are allied with ARM Holdings, the company that makes the basic designs that go into most smartphones and tablets made worldwide.
Shannon Poulin, Intel’s general manager for the data center marketing group, said the explosion in mobile devices has created the need for new kinds of servers, storage devices and networking gear to handle the surge in Internet traffic that smartphones and tablets create.
The company expects it can create the new server products without undercutting demand for its flagship Xeon server chips, which analysts estimate sell for an average price of about $600 each. The Atom-based server chips are expected to cost far less.
Intel expects the new class of low-power servers that is just emerging will account for about 10 percent of the global server market. Several companies that are technology and business allies of ARM are pointing toward the same market.
Makers of performance-oriented servers will tend to gravitate toward Xeon, Poulin said.
“We are doing nothing to hold back the Atom” server, he said. “We will develop the best products in both (Atom and Xeon) families and we will let the market pick.”
Analyst Patrick Moorhead with Moor Insights & Strategy says the performance gains with Intel’s new family of chips is “pretty stunning.”
“With this new lineup, they are looking for new worlds to conquer, but they are also looking to plug a competitive hole as well,” he said.
The chipmaker’s path toward progress with Atom has been painstaking, the analyst said, but the company has shown the fortitude to keep making improvements.
“You keep trying,” he said. “You throw a ton of money at it and you learn from your mistakes. That approach has worked out for Intel in the past.”