Thursday, May 31, 2007

Happy Memory Interface Day

On the heels of Memorial Day comes Memory Interface Day. My colleague Mike Clendenin reports today on the official announcement of miCard in Taiwan. And I am playing catch up with the latest twists in the Intel Robeson story about internal flash card modules in PCs.

Specs on the miCard are hot. It plugs into a USB slot, offers 60Mbytes per second in throughput (and headed for a doubling of that) and scales to handle up to a whopping 2,048 Gbytes of capacity.

The spec being published in June has the backing of the MultiMediaCard Association and a raft of Taiwanese card makers. But as pioneers of past formats know there are many twists and turns between a good spec—and even today's mantra of a good user experience—and a volume product. We shall see.


Meanwhile, Intel is working to spread to the industry the design for the Turbo Memory module it created for the latest batch of Centrino notebooks. The Non-Volatile Memory Host Controller Interface that Intel is defining with Dell and Microsoft will pave the way for a standard motherboard controller and later a block in a chip set to manage the internal flash modules any memory card maker can produce.

Work on the spec should be done before the end of the year. That's the about the same time the separate Open NAND Flash Interface group completes its 2.0 spec defining a link at least 3x faster than today's 40 Mbyte/sec flash interface as well as a physical module and connector.

Like the miCard, I'll take a wait-and-see view on whether Intel's Robeson proliferates into a broader industry offering. The idea seems sound but we have yet to see any flash chips using even the ONFI 1.0 interface, and Dell is the only OEM taking part in the new controller work, so it's still early days.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Joke for the day

OK, I can only poke fun because I am sure I have made similar mistakes myself. Here's one hot off the wires:

SANTA CLARA, Calif., May 29, 2007 – Intel Corporation today unveiled its first Digital TV dual channel demodulators for the consumer electronics (CE) market segment that is housed on a single piece of silicon.

Geez, I thought the consumer electronics market was much bigger than that! Must be all that great Japanese miniaturization.

Tuning in to the Apple TV

Dave Carey of Portelligent has a good teardown of the Apple TV posted this week. There are plenty of good teardowns of the Apple TV out there these days with the late March review from Ars Technica being one of my favorites. But I like Dave's article for its system-level insights, his good comprehensive pictures and because it makes two interesting points on interconnects.

The Apple TV implements WiFi on a daughter card. Carey suspects that's to make upgrades to 11n easier as well as to enable tough negotiations with Broadcom and any potential future suppliers who know they could easily get swapped out.

Separately, he notes the USB port "is nominally restricted to use for diagnostics, [but] the hacker community has devised workarounds to open [it] up to accept mice, keyboards and other USB peripherals." My guess is this was done as a nod to the studios to close a door to unauthorized copying and burning of premium videos from the iTunes store. How ironic this comes to light the same day Apple announces DRM-free songs are now available on ITunes.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Fibre Channel odd man out?

The drive to consolidate the number of networks used in the data center may leave Fibre Channel the odd man out, said my colleague Loring Wirbel in his report from Interop last week. Both enhanced Ethernet and Infiniband are looking better as the long term survivors of this battle for convergence in back-end computing nets, he said.

But surprisingly, Loring found the approach to a lossless Ethernet fabric from startup Woven Systems got more attention as the route to do this than the broader industry effort around so-called Convergence Enhanced Ethernet. It's always possible one startup's hot ideas catch fire before the concepts from a long bureaucratic standards process can gain traction. It's early days here, so I am taking a wait-and-see view.

Loring's report also includes an update on the latest silicon for 10GBase-T, the ultra fast Ethernet over copper standard which to date has also been the ultra hot and expensive Ethernet option.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Flash in the server

One of the projects I will be working on when we all come back from a nice three-day weekend is an exploration of flash in the server. Dean Klein of Micron had an interesting presentation on the concept he delivered recently both at WinHEC and InterOp. I am told a half dozen companies are individually working on concepts for a flash module with unique benefits beyond what a DIMM card, a hard drive or a solid state drive can offer. Among the likely suspects are Fusion I/O of Salt Lake and handful of companies whose names I am not even sure I have right—Physon, Plankton and Pliant.

Clearly, flash is gaining a foothold in the notebook computer with many companies supporting Intel's Turbo Memory (aka Robson) in Santa Rosa class notebooks. Meanwhile Microsoft and partners rolling out hybrid hard drives, and SanDisk, Samsung and others have been cranking up the volume on their solid-state drives. If you know anything about any next wrinkles in this story or have your own ideas about novel solid-state memory approaches, post your thoughts here or drop a line to rbmerrit@cmp.com

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Missive for the Sherriff of Nottingham

OK, so does anybody out there know whether Apple will adopt the new CEA-2017 interface for its iPod, opening the door to a broader world of plug and play docks and peripherals? Apple will not drop the drawbridge on Castle Cupertino to reply to my emails about this…nor frankly will the Consumer Electronics Association. Perhaps, like Robin Hood, I should tie my message to a flaming arrow and send it over the castle walls!

Similarly, those oh-so-open people over at the Googleplex have not responded to my repeated requests for interviews with their server gurus. OK, so they are not exactly ready to hand me the specs I so crave for the Google server. Nevertheless, you think they might at least send a polite note declining to speak publicly about what this biggest of server users (and makers) wants to see from this industry. Call me crazy, but I think a little open industry discussion is a good thing.

Angry about the behavior of the techno tyrannts? Join me in Sherwood Forest with a hot tip at rbmerrit@cmp.com

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Startup stands out in 10GE crowd

I've been writing about a lot of the 10 Gbit Ethernet chip and card providers lately, but haven't said much about one that is taking a bow today. In their latest report out today, market watchers at The Linley Group (Mountain View, Calif.) are reporting startup Neterion Inc. had a commanding 60.1 percent revenue share of the 10 Gbit Ethernet market in 2006.

Neterion rose 11 points over its standings in the group's last report in 2005. It also grew faster than the market as a whole, rising 111 percent versus 71 percent for the overall market. The startup's "focus on the high end of the server and storage market is paying off," said analyst Bob Wheeler who compiled the report.

Of course it is still early days for 10GE. Incumbent Broadcom has just come out with its first part, as have other potentially big players such as Sun. So change is in the works this year. Nevertheless, this is Neterion's day to take a bow.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Tuesday's goulash

The main news of the day, as far as I can tell with my eyes still bleary, is that Broadcom has rolled out a chip for 10G backplane Ethernet. (Wish they would have briefed me!) Some forward-looking engineers think silicon based on this KR spec will someday find its way into multicore CPUs, too.

On a completely unrelated note, I was down at the PCI SIG conference yesterday for a detailed briefing. I guess it just goes to show how hard it is to get an entire industry to develop and move to faster interconnects when the briefing for 2007 sounds pretty much like the briefing for 2006. Talk about leftovers!

Al Yanes, the IBM chip set engineering manager who heads the SIG these days, gave some details about the multiple levels on which work is slogging forward on PCI Express 3.0. It's still up for debate whether this will be an 8 or 10G spec and whether it could still sport compatibility with today's version 1.1. "If this were easy, we'd be briefing you on the details today," Yanes said.

Bumped into the father of Express, Ajay Bhatt, at the Dev Con. He's now the uber I/O architect at Intel, looking for ways to drive common technologies and practices across all wired and wireless I/O. Hey, it's the era of consolidation and cost savings, right? He says he is busy coming up to speed on everything from Ethernet to wireless USB. Wonder what sort of stew he will come up with from those ingredients?

Finally, my colleague Loring Wirbel is neck deep in news at Interop this week. Check out his story on optical cabling advances among others, and stay tuned for much more as Wirbelicious cooks up his own goulash this week over at EE Times.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Here comes the fast Express train

Pericom Semi is jumping the gun by announcing two switches for the 5 GHz PCI Express Gen2 before the PCI Special Interest Group even completes its compliance tests. I guess it's always nice to get some recognition and Pericom does tend to fly under the radar screen. However, I don't think there is going to be any big rush to board this latest fast train.

Yes, Pericom has correctly identified that gamers and some technical apps will fuel initial demand with their hunger for multiple graphics accelerators. The new chips can help bring multiple GPUs to one system, even if the chip set is based on today's pedestrian 2.5 GHz Express. (Remember when 500 MHz was considered blazingly fast?!) But outside these niches there won't be much of a market to serve for awhile.

Disagree? Let me know with a posting here or email me at rbmerrit@cmp.com. I'll be at the PCI SIG Dev Con today trying to assess the outlook for Express 2.0 among other things, and I welcome your feedback.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Mellanox embraces 10G Ethernet

Infiniband silicon provider Mellanox officially rolls out its first 10 Gbit Ethernet chip today, a competent if somewhat expensive design at a published price of $182 for the silicon alone. It integrates CX4, KX4 and XFI interfaces and enables per priority pause, a forward-looking congestion management feature. However, The ConnectX EN device does not terminate TCP, enable RDMA or, at least initially, run the Open Fabrics Alliance software. However it does intend to support the RDMA-enabled OFA software sometime in the future.

Bottom line, as I have said before here, the move is another sign Ethernet will dominate the data center. However, it will be a somewhat polyglot world. For the foreseeable future, Infiniband will have a niche in clustering performance and Fibre Channel one in mature software for storage.

Friday, May 18, 2007

NUMA for the masses

Microsoft is upping the ante in its support for non-uniform memory access (NUMA) systems. Windows has provided support for NUMA in the way it schedules threads and manages memory. Now it is creating in its Windows Server 2008 operating system a new storage I/O capability for NUMA.

Two sessions at this week's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference discussed the deeper focus on NUMA in Windows Server. I asked Bruce Worthington, a development leader in the Windows Server group why Microsoft is putting more emphasis in this area.

He said the rise of multicore processors with shared caches is one of the big motivators. Another is Intel's plans to roll out its Common System Interface. CSI will act like AMD's HyperTransport to open the door to glueless multiprocessing systems in which disk reads and writes must sometimes traverse multiple CPUs, something the NUMA software could simplify.

NUMA used to be the domain of big systems like those made by Sequent Computer. But in the shrinking world of electronics, now NUMA is ramping up in fairly mainstream PC servers, and before long it will be baked in to multicore CPUs.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Vista uber alles

Microsoft has always been about volumes, and increasingly its focus is on links to the consumer electronics world. The company put out some stunning stats in a Wednesday keynote at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference.

* Windows Vista shipped with 20,000 device drivers in the box, twice the number of XP.

* The Windows Update online service provides Vista drivers for another 13,000 devices.

* 1.5 million systems were certified to work with Vista when it was released in November 2006.

* Another 400,000 systems have been certified for Vista since then.

* Microsoft has shipped 40 million copies of Vista since it was released in November.

I have had a hard time getting the big picture on Microsoft's approach to linking with the world of consumer devices, one of many recurring themes at WinHEC. Bill Gates gave significant time to Rally, Vista software that can be embedded in peripherals and consumer devices to make them easier to recognize on a home network. Gates made a passing reference to Microsoft's Pica (aka Windows Media Extender) software that can be embedded in TVs and other devices to let them send display data from one system to another in the home.


Other sessions talked about the new Windows Portable Devices software that includes its Media Transport Protocol soon to be a standard from the USB Implementers Forum. WPD represents a new effort to roll up into one package various efforts to link cellphones, digital cameras and media players to Vista.

My sense is this messy bouquet of consumer embedded software for Vista is the byproduct of the company's design philosophy. Microsoft tends to "let a thousand flowers bloom" as the Chinese say, assigning a battery of middle managers to a variety of interesting initiatives and harvesting the ones that work out. I'm guessing this must look pretty confusing from the standpoint of a Sony or Matsushita.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

An interface for the iPod

Will Apple adopt the recently minted CEA-2017 standard for linking portable media players to docking stations, car audio systems and the rest of the digital media world? That's the question now that the Consumer Electronics Association has officially put the new spec out.

CEA-2017 defines "electrical and mechanical properties for a connector that will pass audio, video and associated metadata signals, control signals, and power between portable electronic devices and in home and in vehicle audio/video systems." Great! Consumers would love universal docking stations and links to cars that don't require specific vendor-to-vendor collaborations.

But given its tendency to live quite comfortably behind its walled garden, I am skeptical Apple will support this new standard. I am still trying to find out if the company that dominates the MP3 space took part in the standard effort and what if any opinion it has about it, so stay tuned.

Interestingly, a preview of the CEA spec references among other things Microsoft's Media Transport Protocol at the heart of its new application programming interface for linking Vista to cellphones, portable media players and digital still cameras. At a presentation at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference where I am camped out this week, Microsoft said it is making MTP an open standard through the USB Implementer's Forum.

Perhaps once again the big fat monopoly in Redmond will prove to be more open that those creative crazies in Cupertino.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Turning the crank on wireless USB

Both Alereon and Wisair hope to have silicon news about wireless USB based on word from the show floor at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference this week. The news could contain first looks at chips that try to span two or more of the 3-10 GHz spectrum band groups dedicated to the ultrawideband technology in various parts of the globe.

I bumped into Jeff Ravencraft, Intel's man driving the initiative, while getting registered for the show. He was just back from Canada where he says regulators are "closing in" on an ultrawideband regulatory policy. China is still the big hold out. Europe is in, but the cellphone powers that be there will not deploy the first generation silicon that is coming out for the so-called Band Group 1 frequencies of 3.1-4.8 GHz because the chips might interfere with cellular traffic.

The big news in the W-USB community is that certification under the WiMedia Alliance is finally starting this week. It could take three weeks to get news back from the event about who got the official blessing for their physical and media-access layers. The USB Implementers Forum will follow up with a certification of the protocol layer that could show results about the same time. And by the end of July the USB-IF hopes to certify some hubs, the first end user products to pass interop inspections.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Pool party for 10G Ethernet

Add Broadcom Corp. to the growing list of chip makers jumping into the pool for bringing 10Gbit/second Ethernet on the PC server. The company claims its dual-port 10G part can handle full bi-directional line rates and requires no external memory.

That gives Broadcom an edge over Net Effect that announced a similar part recently. The Net Effect device needs 256 Mbytes external memory to support its full throughput, although the chip is the company's second generation and thus somewhat better shaken out in the market.

Chelsio got this party started with a 10G card that was among the first to run the full Open Fabrics Alliance software stack that targets both 10G Ethernet and Infiniband. Speaking of which, Mellanox promised its own 10Gbit offer soon.

Sun Microsystems has its own device, closely tied to the capabilities of its multi-core processors. Later this year, Intel is expected to have new 10G Ethernet acceleration built into its chip sets, too. Meanwhile, Alacritech, which helped get the whole TCP offload business started, is a laggard, cost-reducing its Gbit parts this year and waiting until next year to launch 10G.

Anybody else ready to dive in?

Solid-state drives get a new link on life

The rising popularity of solid-state drives especially for notebook computers is creating more interest in improving their interconnects. My colleague Mike Clendenin has a good report this morning on Mosaid's proposed HyperLink NAND link that claims to improve bandwidth from 133 Mbits/second per pin in its first spec to 800 Mbits/s/ pin in later revisions.

The question is whether any flash makers will adopt it. The likelihood is as flash becomes more important in sold-state drives and other devices, every flash maker probably has its own internal R&D programs looking at this interconnect. There must be some discussions on the topic in Jedec, too, I would think. Flash makers, chime in here or at rbmerrit@cmp.com to keep me up to date.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Here comes wireless USB

Turns out Lenovo hopes to be among the first computer companies to put wireless USB in a notebook computer-—one that could ship within a couple weeks. Mark Cohen, a senior Lenovo engineer and manager told me he had a model sitting on his desk today.

I was especially surprised given I just attended the launch of Intel's Santa Rosa platform this week where dozens of notebooks were displayed. Not one of them had UWB.

Whether ultrawideband takes off in the computer world still depends on getting prices down and the number of interesting peripherals up, so this is not a done deal by any means. It's just one small step ahead by the folks who brought you the ThinkPad.

Smart USB drives 3.0?

I had completely forgotten about the move to smart USB drives that could launch your applications and desktop preferences on any computer. The once promising market seemed to have fallen asleep, until this morning when Microsoft hit the alarm button and cut a deal with SanDisk to reboot what had been the most organized effort in this area.

The bad news is anybody playing in the space will at the very least need to evaluate the duo's new hardware and software—or risk getting run over by it. The unresolved piece in my mind is whether the USB Implementers Forum or any other group will try to have any say here, spoiling Microsoft's run at a de facto standard.

The USB Flash Drive Alliance is clearly washing its hands of any standards role now that as many as five approaches to building smart drives are in use. Instead it seems to be taking a market-focused role which is appropriate given these smart devices seem to have real potential but nearly zero traction to date.

We will have to wait a year for when the new products debut to see if the latest Microsoft twist changes that reality.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Wireless USB a no-show in Santa Rosa

Last year a handful of notebook engineers told me they thought wireless USB might make an appearance in their systems built around the next generation Intel Centrino platform dubbed Santa Rosa. Well, it didn't happen.

I was at the launch yesterday and nary a notebook sported the ultra wideband links cordless file transfers. That's not too surprising given it was less than a month ago the first three W-USB chips passed the formal certification tests.

Some said there was enough new stuff—like draft 802.11n—in Santa Rosa and decided to hold off on W-USB to keep things simple. Others said there are just not enough wireless USB peripherals out yet to make the integration worthwhile.

Fujitsu said it expects to add wireless USB to a refresh of its corporate notebooks by the end of the year. But an HP product marketing manager was less optimistic, suggesting W-USB may not arrive until the Intel Montevina platform in late 2008.

I am looking for some feedback from Intel on this and may file a full story over at EE Times if I get something substantive.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Is 2007 the year for wireless USB?

I am headed to an Intel love fest for its Santa Rosa notebook platform debuting today. When I last checked, OEMs were on the fence as to whether they would get wireless USB put in time for these products or not. I will try to find out today and report back tomorrow, so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, this has been something of a slow news week--and I don't expect any major news to hit with WinHEC in LA where I will be next week. So chime in dear blog readers with any scoops or tips for anything you have picked up lately from the interconnect world.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

2 GHz on a budget

Altera's debut of its low cost Arria family of FPGAs is a statement from the company that 1-2.5 GHz Ethernet, PCI Express and Serial Rapid I/O links are going mainstream.

We at EE Times learned that people were moving to an Ethernet and Express world from our 2005 interconnect survey. And a recent job posting for Cisco suggested the market leader is already diving into 5 Gbit/s+ designs.

That could make Altera's bet on a $50 FPGA tailored to the 1-2 GH links a pretty good one. I'd love to hear back from any system designer on whether cost has indeed become the primary issue at these speeds, so drop me a post or an email at rbmerrit@cmp.com

Monday, May 07, 2007

Gauging the Wibree wave

My colleague in London, John Walko, has a good update today on progress on Wibree, a low power variant of Bluetooth promoted by Nokia. Although backers have been fairly quiet since their launch in October, the group is close to launching a final spec that will detail its physical layer and releasing news of perhaps a half dozen new backers. What's more chip designs are being tested now and should be ready to sample before the end of the year, according to the report.

Companies including Dell have complained that Wibree will further fragment an already highly niched personal area network sector. But Wibree backers insist they will complement not compete with Bluetooth.

Wibree aims to use the same basic radio design as Bluetooth, but require a fraction of the power thanks to an approach that keeps transceivers in a sleep mode except for short burst of communications at up to 1 Mbit/s over 5-10 meters. Their aim is to let devices like connected watches and toys operate for a year on their batteries.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Tips for speed freaks

Board design guru Lee W. Ritchey is shipping the second volume of his book "Right the First Time, A Practical Handbook on High Speed PCB and System Design."

The book takes a deep dive, particularly in the area of the printed circuit board fabrication process, aiming to help engineers select the right PCB materials and glass styles to best handle board effects such as EMI and impedance. The volume also discusses issues in simulation, virtual prototyping and other forms of testing.
Ritchey also wrote an article on modeling issues for a 2005 supplement on interconnects. He claims to have taught more than 6,000 engineers through courses as part of his consulting firm Speeding Edge that is selling the new book on its Web site for $95.

Yes, a lot of the value of design is moving up the stack to software, but in the gigahertz era getting hardware right the first time is still fundamental, Ritchey says in a promo for the book. "The poor package design of many recent IC implementations has caused a number of products and even companies to fail," said Ritchey.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Crossing the wireless chasm

Sometimes this industry is just plain freaky. One moment I am listening to a panel discussion among six vendors with different wireless solutions for video home networking, happy as clams about the future. The next minute I am listening to another panel where four top technologists from TV service providers talk about why they don't expect to support wireless video networking for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps the conference should have been called Mis-Connections. I wonder if the VCs for Amimon, Pulse~Link, Ruckus, SiBeam or Tzero were anywhere in the crowd. I didn't see anyone fainting or in cardiac arrest. Of course, these wireless wannabees aim to get design wins in flat-screen displays and TV receivers, they don't have to have support in set-top boxes, but…

Just to make matters worse, two of the wireless hopefuls are using variants of Wi-Fi. The representative of the Wi-Fi Alliance on the panel gave them a little kick by saying: "You can put in whatever proprietary extensions you want, but if you are not working with other people you are just fragmenting the market."

Thursday, May 03, 2007

I spy Eye-Fi

So I am waiting in a small cluster of folks to talk to a senior Comcast exec at the Connections conference yesterday and I listen as stealth mode startup Eye-Fi makes their pitch to him.

They have an 802.11 chip crammed on to an SD card. Slap it into a digital camera and you have a wireless link that with a little software magic can automatically send your pictures to a nearby TV screen or even upload them to any one of 20 Web photo service suppliers with which they claim to have deals. Cool! Of course, they aren't ready to talk publicly about their plans yet, so just close your eyes and forget you heard about this, OK?

Here comes MoCA

I expect Comcast Communications will announce at next week's Cable Show in Vegas its plans for deploying the Multimedia over Coax home network. Geez, it's about time. We have been writing about this stuff for about three years or more now!

Having digital video recorder capabilities in multiple rooms is the big driver. Rival Cox Communications says it has been filling that need to date by just shipping digital set-tops for each TV in the home. Demand has been low so far, but as it rises Cox will want to shift to home networks to lower their capital costs on set-tops. That's a move Cox may not make for another 18 months, so expect a slooooow ramp as we wait for the cable guy to make the rounds.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Bionic man goes broadband

Zarlink is ratcheting up the potential raw data rates for medical implant devices up to 800 Kbits/second while keeping typical power draw as low as 5 milliA with its latest transceiver released today. The specs for the ZL70101 come thanks to Zarlink's tight optimization around the Medical Implant Communication Service spec for 402-405 MHz operation.

I haven't heard of anyone else doing 400 MHz-only transceivers like this before. If there are others out there, please let me know. AMI Semiconductor has a family of parts, but they cover a wide swath from 300-950 MHz. Texas Instruments would only say they have nothing to say right now. That makes me wonder if they have their own family of parts in design. Meanwhile, how cool is it to think that if someone's defibrillator recognizes the person is having a heart attack it can automatically call paramedics!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Geology of Sun

Jim Fister, a senior technologist from Intel's Itanium group I interviewed recently, has been reading between the lines in Jonathan Schwartz's blog about the Sun Rock microprocessor. Jim believes Rock will handle all communications through embedded memory, including processor-to-processor links. That could open up a novel space for Sun as it uses Rock to build big symmetric multiprocessing machines for database servers.

I had an interview with David Yen, who recently moved to reconstitute Sun Microelectonics. Details about Rock won't be available for awhile, but he did tease that Rock will include "modern processor features up to now only being discussed in academic papers.


If Fister is right, it will be interesting to see what sort of cracks appear in competitors' plans after Sun throws out this Rock. For its part, Intel is expected to detail this summer its CSI interconnect for linking to future x86 processors.

 
interconnects