Electronic Design

A Year Of Transition: Machines Get Faster, Smaller, Smarter

The next crop of laptops, desktops, and servers will sport new connectors and new technology.

The next crop of laptops, desktops, and servers will sport new connectors and new technology. Meanwhile, serial ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment) disk drives are making quiet inroads with smaller connectors and higher transfer rates. These drives will move into laptops and desktops, but servers are where Serial ATA will really shine this year. These drives are ideal for the RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) systems found in most small- and medium-size servers (opening figure). Serial ATA minimizes cable clutter and provides a high-speed upgrade path. Serial ATA hard drives are readily available, but parallel ATA drives will still make up the bulk of drives inside laptop and desktop systems.

Other serial connections, like the universal serial bus (USB), will be out in force. The higher throughput of the USB 2.0 incarnation is giving IEEE1394 (FireWire) a run for its money in the multimedia environment. Don't count out 1394, though. The newer 1394b is faster and better at networking. Its security support is a key feature that USB 2.0 lacks.

USB is forcing out legacy serial and parallel ports, but most desktop motherboards still have the extra connectors. Compact desktops and laptops are dropping these connections as quickly as possible, especially with the latest crop of USB-based peripherals. Everything from printers to scanners to keyboards and mice use USB, making it easy to hook up new devices. Best of all, today's USB software support is significantly better than in the past.

One peripheral that has been taking the desktop by storm is the flat-panel display. Interestingly, analog interfaces are not being pushed out by the digital visual interface (DVI), which provides superior output. This is primarily due to the VGA output support of video chip sets for so long. Dual-output controllers are common now, allowing users to implement dual monitor systems at a much lower cost.

Networking is the other peripheral that's now ubiquitous. Trying to find a laptop or desktop without Ethernet can be tough these days. That is, of course, when 802.11 is that part of the bundle. Most desktop motherboards have 100BaseT connections as a standard feature, and blade servers are showing up with a pair of Gigabit Ethernet adapters (see the figure, p. 36).

Another trend is the integration of more peripheral support into processors and processor support chips. Intel's Pentium M and Transmeta's TM8000 incorporate more logic, allowing better control over power use. The 32-bit processors continue to dominate the market, but 64-bit processors are starting to creep into arenas other than the high-end server market. AMD's 64-bit, HyperTransport-based Opteron processor boasts true x86-compatibility with 64-bit extensions versus the wholesale architecture changes found in Intel's Itanium product line. The big question remains whether or not good technology translates into good sales.

New features keep processing power moving up the curve, in addition to higher clock rates. More pipelining, larger caches, and hardware multitasking are used in all but the very low-end processors. This means more power at a lower price.

Users have become accustomed to migrating to new technology. The ever changing RAM requirements necessary to keep up with the latest Intel Pentium are just one aspect of this. It has made upgrades one of those rare occurrences that takes a determined user to complete. This has allowed Via, Transmeta, and AMD to make a dent in Intel's dominant position, especially in areas where power and cost are concerned. Intel's Centrino technology is aimed squarely at these competitors.

Portable devices are moving toward ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) and Intel's Xscale, but the laptop, desktop, and server markets are still in the x86 universe. Still, the x86 products are taking tips from low-power embedded devices. More extensive voltage and frequency settings are the norm for laptop, desktop, and even blade servers as power and cooling become more important.

Fans are disappearing as power requirements are reduced. Laptops definitely benefit from convection cooling, but this technology really makes a big difference in compact desktops and dense blade servers. However, cooling requirements at the other end of the spectrum, where 64-bit processors dominate, are actually increasing.

Lower power and cooling requirements, along with new peripheral connections, are also changing the form factor for desktops and servers. Desktop machines are getting smaller, and CD-RW drives are cutting this further by eliminating the need for the venerable floppy disk drive. Via's EPIA-V Series Mini-ITX Mainboard does not require a cooling fan, even though it packs a system, including a single PCI slot, on a 17- by 17-cm board.

PCI still reigns where expandability is important. PCI-X is being used where high performance is required primarily in small- to medium-size servers. The new PCI-X 2.0 standard is getting a great deal of support. For the near future, PCI-X is going to deliver performance comparable to the new serial PCI Express standard while remaining backward-compatible.

PCI Express is making an appearance this year, just not in volumes that will significantly impact the parallel PCI/PCI-X market. Next year may be quite different.

It is still possible to build a legacy-compatible desktop, but this is a year of transition. This year's machines are getting faster, smaller, and smarter, and it is about time. The migration to new technologies won't be complete for a couple more years, but the time is coming.

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