The processing I/O bottleneck the industry has been wrestling with is about to encounter a bottleneck of its own in the form of a power struggle between Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Intel Corp.
AMD and patrons of its high-speed HyperTransport I/O interface this week formed a consortium to advance the standard in a wide range of applications, from PCs and handheld devices to networking systems and consumer electronics.
AMD said more than 180 companies are now working on possible HyperTransport interfaces for their products.
Intel, meanwhile, is advancing a rival interface, Next Generation I/O (NGIO), which will get a bandwagon send-off at the Intel Developer Forum at the end of August.
While Intel and AMD manufacture the vast majority of processors used in PC applications, others are promoting interfaces of their own, like the PowerPC camp headed by IBM and Motorola, which is stumping for its Rapid I/O. Also in the race are a fast I/O from chipset maker ServerWorks and the V-Link from Via Technologies.
OEMs will be hard pressed to avoid being drawn into the new high-speed I/O war. Some have already cast their lot with AMD's HyperTransport. Others, like Cisco, a member of both the HyperTransport consortium and the loosely organized Rapid I/O alliance, are spreading their bets.
It's a high-stakes issue because as MPU performance skyrockets, painful bottlenecks are cropping up in a range of platforms that need to push high-speed data off the processor and around the system, said Bert McComas, an analyst at InQuest Research, Gilbert, Ariz.
Richard Doherty, an analyst at The Envisioneering Group, Seaford, N.Y., said the creation of the HyperTransport consortium "definitely heats things up" and places new pressure on Intel to bring its NGIO interface to market quickly.
Intel, Santa Clara, Calif., has powerful ammunition in this area, not least because of its ability to co-opt its massive Wintel-centric OEM customer base to adopt the NGIO as it links it to its IA-32 and IA-64 processor architectures.
The coming months will likely see a replay of the struggle in which Intel fought to make USB a de facto I/O standard, and the company's latest campaign to establish USB 2.0 against the IEEE 1394 standard, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at InSight64, Saratoga, Calif.
Intel is also trying to buttress its NGIO arsenal by sounding out an alliance with the less-prominent Rapid I/O camp, according to industry sources at the Platform 2001 Conference in San Jose last week. Neither IBM, Intel, nor Motorola responded to inquiries by press time.
One theater that could become particularly heated is 64-bit processors, where an advanced-I/O battle is expected to erupt between AMD and Intel. AMD, Sunnyvale, Calif., is using HyperTransport technology not only in its 64-bit Hammer family, but also as a high-speed interconnect between chips as part of a switched-fabric processor bus. Intel is using its proprietary IA-64 architecture, adding InfiniBand as a high-speed interconnect between clusters of 64-bit computers.
In the end, however, some of the competing I/O interfaces may end up coexisting, much as PCI, SCSI, Ethernet, and Fibre Channel have. Indeed, these interfaces are undergoing rapid upgrades of their own, which is likely to further complicate the I/O picture.
Additional reporting by Bruce Gain