Tolapai and Silverthorne are an interesting pair, and they mark something of a departure for Intel. The semiconductor company has heretofore always offered processor products; that is, chips an OEM or retail customer could buy off the shelf.
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Systems-on-a-chip may be the most novel component of Intel's long-term technology strategy.
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A System-on-Chip (or system-on-a-chip) is a different slice of silicon entirely. At the 50,000-foot level, one can think of an SoC not so much as a product, but rather a collection of intellectual property for building a chip. That is, the semiconductor house has on its shelf all the different blocks of the processor -- CPU, logic, RAM, even ancillary stuff like the graphics engine.
When an OEM comes along and wants a specific version of that chip, customized for a particular product it wants to make, the semiconductor vendor springs into action. It pulls the blocks it needs off its virtual shelf, puts them together, burns a mask, and sends the whole thing over to its fab. Voilà, customized chip.
This is what Intel envisions for Tolapai and Silverthorne. (The latter will also be offered as an off-the-shelf part.) The designs seem to be aimed high and low, respectively.
Here's how Tolapai was explained in a news release issued by Intel during its Developer Forum in Beijing in April:
System on Chip Plans, Enterprise -- [Intel senior vice president Pat] Gelsinger unveiled "Tolapai" plans, the first in what will be a family of enterprise-class "system-on-chip" (SoC) products that integrate several key system components into a single Intel architecture-based processor. The 2008 Tolapai product is expected to reduce the chip footprint size by up to 45% and power consumption by approximately 20% compared to a standard four-chip design, while improving throughput performance and processor efficiency. Tolapai will include the new Intel QuickAssist Integrated Accelerator technology.
In contrast to the enterprise-oriented Tolapai, Silverthorne, as mentioned above, is intended for use in UMPC-class handhelds.
Intel's dipping of its corporate toes into the SoC waters is significant because, traditionally, SoCs have often been aimed at market segments where there wasn't enough volume to justify the launch of a one-size-fits-all product. Intel, which lives on large volumes, always has stuck with the big stuff.
In opting to try SoC, Intel may be engaging in something of a loss-leader strategy. That is, perhaps it is signifying that it is content to make less money in the UMPC market (with Silverthorne) to begin with, if it can help nurture that market. (Remember that the ultra-mobile segment doesn't really exist today. Remember, too, that Intel's full-frontal assault on the cell phone chip market failed; perhaps that legacy has inspired an alternate tack.)
How does Tolopai, which is aimed at the high end, dovetail with this assumption? Possibly the high end is where Intel can learn the most about getting its SoC technology up and running. Perhaps, too, Intel envisions a day not too far distant where the leading edge of computer (where 16-, 32-, and 64-core devices are used) is no longer a commodity space, and thus it wants to get a jump on SoC while the getting's good.