Recognizing that clock speed is no longer a strong selling point, Intel and AMD are enhancing their x86 processors with embedded features such as virtualization and management tools meant to take the heavy lifting off the software that handles such tasks today.
On the server side, for example, there has been a lot of talk about virtualization capabilities that will be embedded into processors to enable software such as VMware and Xen to run better. The shift also is happening on the desktop.
Intel's recently announced vPro business desktop is expected to begin shipping in the third quarter, is a good example of what users will be able to do with systems thanks to new hardware-based technologies.
The vPro package will deliver three benefits: low IT maintenance costs, high security and better energy efficiency, Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini said at a press conference in San Francisco announcing vPro.
The systems will be built on Intel's next-generation desktop processor, code-named Conroe. With Conroe, the systems will have virtualization technology hardwired into the silicon, meaning that desktops can be partitioned into isolated hardware environments. As a result, software services, such as virus scanning, will be able to run in a protected, isolated environment outside the core operating system. Today, desktops can be virtualized, but only through software from vendors such as VMware.
In addition, the vPro chipset will include Intel Active Management Technology (AMT). This hardware- and firmware-based technology will allow IT managers to more easily manage and monitor desktop devices, even if they're in the middle of a crash, analysts say.
"It's really the next step in the evolution of desktop management systems," says Martin Reynolds, a vice president at Gartner. "Today, management systems rely on the integrity of the operating system that they're trying to manage, and most of the time the reason you want to manage something is because the operating system is broken. Intel is breaking that link with these new systems."
AMD also is heading in that direction. "But they're not quite there yet," Reynolds says, adding that "I don't think it will take long for AMD to catch up and produce something similar."
Indeed, AMD plans to integrate virtualization capabilities into its processors in the second half of the year, says Simon Solotko, product manager for commercial desktops at AMD. As for management tools, AMD is focusing on the Alert Standards Forum (ASF) 2.0 specification, a hardware-based management standard that was created by the Distributed Management Task Force to enable customers to remotely monitor and repair heterogeneous PCs.
HP and Dell, along with software providers such as Altiris, also have come out in support of this standard.
"ASF 2.0 was the first in hardware-based manageability," says Solotko. "AMD is choosing an industry-standard approach, while Intel is taking a proprietary approach."
Regardless of the approach, Reynolds says the trend toward creating a hardware platform for PC manageability will be important for users, who face their biggest PC costs in managing the devices.
"For enterprises, the cost of the desktop isn't that much," he says. "It's more the cost of the operations that concerns them."
Intel plans to put a small vPro sticker on each desktop, just as it labels notebooks with Centrino stickers today.
IDG News Service Correspondent Ben Ames contributed to this report.