Wolfe's Den: Intel CTO Envisions On-Chip Data Centers

Justin Rattner, chief technology officer at the chip giant, talks about the explosion of multicore processing, bringing security to cloud computing, and processor-based networking.
Intel CTO Justin Rattner made his technology bones in the 1980s, pushing the supercomputing industry from unsustainably expensive, proprietary architectures toward affordable, off-the-shelf microprocessors. In his role as head of Intel Labs, he has similarly brought the perspective that advanced research must deliver a financial benefit.

I caught up with Rattner to talk about his disruptive work in defining the high-performance system of the future.

InformationWeek: Multicore processing is exploding, as evidenced in designs like Intel's 80-core Tera-scale prototype processor. Ultimately, will we see entire data centers implemented in silicon?

Rattner: We just won the best-paper prize in the Symposium on Operating System Principles with our collaborators at Carnegie Mellon on something called FAWN, which stands for "fast arrays of wimpy nodes." It's the idea that, if we could build tomorrow's processors out of arrays of relatively simple cores, we could deliver data-center-class solutions. It would be data centers on chips, and then arrays of those chips.

InformationWeek: Does this set up a possible race between virtual and physical processors, because with the chips you're talking about, you'll have so many physical cores you won't need virtual instances?

Rattner: If an individual core is so inexpensive, why go to all the trouble to virtualize it? Just allocate some number of physical cores to the problem. What we're also trying to understand is, what leads to the most energy-efficient solution? Am I more energy efficient if I take a big core and virtualize it many ways than I would be if I took lots of simple cores and handed them out as the workloads demanded? I can't tell you what the answer is, but things are looking pretty good for the small cores.

InformationWeek: You also believe general-purpose processors have a place in networking equipment, correct?

Rattner: We have a project out of our Intel Berkeley Lab called Router Bricks. The whole idea is taking servers and 10-Gb Ethernet, and building gigabit-class routers out of standard parts. [The idea is], what if we could do the bulk of networking using standard server hardware, and essentially routing becomes a software application?

InformationWeek: You've also explored having the processor handle security. Tell us about that.

Rattner: We have manageability engines, which underlie our VPro architecture. We use those both for manageability and security. Longer term, we need a general-purpose solution. We need an architectural breakthrough which allows an open platform to selectively and programmatically become closed during a secure computational phase. What we ultimately need is being able to go into stealth mode for brief periods of time and then come back into the open.

InformationWeek: This relates to the big issue concerning everyone nowadays--security in the cloud.

Rattner: We're working with Microsoft and Cisco and some other folks on something we call network enclaves, an architecture that allows for dramatically simpler cryptographic key management. It lets you build Internet-wide subnets, which are completely secure. Plus, the IT folks don't have to manage the individual keys, because they're derived from a single master key associated with the enclave. It's going to take a few more years to get this to market.

Alexander Wolfe is editor in chief of

To find out more about Alexander Wolfe, please visit his page.

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