It's the final day of IDF 2012 and it's customary for Intel to give attendees a peek into the future. But unlike IDFs in the past where they share futuristic ideas that may not see practical near future implementation, Intel made an effort today to demonstrate key technologies that seem to be more or less closer to productization.
This is not to say that Intel is all talk without action as they are not close to realizing the idea of Radio Free Intel which they've explored a decade ago. The idea of Radio Free Intel was simple, they basically explored the idea of building a radio in each and every device, so they can form a connected network of intelligent machines that will always remain connected. However, radios are usually large analog circuits that take up large real estate in a silicon chip and it doesn't scale well with process technologies. So even when Intel actively shrink their logic circuits (i.e. CPU), the die area required by radios remain large. Although it may not seem like a big deal, these large analog radio circuits do consume more power and in an era where keeping the cost of chips low, a large die may not be favorable.
During the keynote, Intel's chief technology officer, Justin Rattner, demonstrated the first working all-digital WiFi radio known as "Moore's Law Radio". Achieved by remodelling an analog circuit into a digital one, the new radio will allow Intel to follow Moore's Law of scaling in area and energy efficiency. This simply means that future system-on-chip designs for smartphones and tablet computers would be able to take advantage of these highly miniaturized yet low power digital radios.
Intel also talked about a next-generation wireless standard called WiGig that will operate in the millimeter wavelength range of the radio spectrum (at about 60GHz). It is expected that the new WiGig standard can deliver bandwidths of over 5 gigabits per second. In a public demonstration of WiGig, Intel demonstrated how an Ultrabook equipped with WiGig could wirelessly dock with an external hard drive and two full HD displays while it plays a full HD video streamed from the external storage device. If all certifications pass, we might see WiGig products as early as the middle of next year.
Besides faster WiFi connectivity, Intel also addressed the problem of battery life often associated with devices that are constantly connected wirelessly to the network. Today, when devices are asleep, it really isn't fully asleep as technology such as Intel Smart Connect keeps the Ultrabook awake momentarily to receive incoming packets of data to ensure it continues to receive important email and social media updates. However, this constant wireless transmission of data, no matter how quick, still consumes significant amount of power.
Demonstrating this new technology known as "Spring Meadow", Intel is able to manage communication between the cloud and the device more intelligently. By pre-processing incoming network traffic and managing traffic flow, the host processor will remain in a low-power state longer, only waking when it's necessary. With such an intelligent technology in place, Intel expects battery power to be vastly improved without impacting system performance. In some circumstances, as much as half the battery power could be saved with this technology.
In the area of mobile communications, Rattner talked about its ongoing research in the area of Cloud Radio Access Network (C-RAN). As an alternative to traditional networks which uses base stations to serve out network communications, C-RAN is able to consolidate radio protocols through software rather than dedicated hardware at each base station tower. By using a cloud infrastructure to manage network capacity in a centralized location, capacity can always be re-routed to base stations on demand and where they are needed. The load balancing nature of compute resources would result in superior levels of wireless services especially during periods of peak demand. Because all radio protocols such as LTE-based station stack can be implemented through software, consolidating all compute resources in a datacenter running on hundreds or thousands of IA-based servers would not only result in cost savings, it would also simplify the deployment of future radio protocols through a simple software upgrade. According to research conducted with China Mobile, C-RAN is also capable of reducing power consumption cost.
However, network performance isn't really just about capacity and speed. In another research called Video Aware Wireless Network (VAWN), the joint research program between Intel, Cisco and Verizon showed how mobile video traffic can be improved significantly by understanding the bandwidth required by the type of video and the device it's streaming to. By intelligently allocating the right bandwidth for the kind of video streamed to a particular type of device, VAWN is able to optimize the quality of video content sent to each device, resulting in improved viewing experience of more devices sharing the same wireless network bandwidth.