Inside Intel's Top Secret Lab

Wednesday Apr 8th 2009 by Rob Enderle
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Three Intel initiatives, Confrontational Computing, Energy Aware Network Proxy, and CloneCloud, could significantly change the tech landscape.

Intel's Lab in Oakland is almost never shared with analysts or reporters and appears intentionally placed at a location that seems both dangerous to get to and inconsistent with Intel, implying massive secrecy. Therefore it was with some surprise that they had an open house there last week to showcase some of their secret projects.

There were a variety of showcases, too many to list here (you can see the entire set in the overview brochure), but they dealt with things as diverse as micro sensors that could monitor anything, to long range Wi-Fi technology that could be placed almost anywhere, to anti-malware products that could make the current approaches to writing viruses and hacking into companies obsolete.

Three technologies stood out as potentially world changing:

1) Confrontational Computing

Intel has built into its culture the concept of Constructive Confrontation, which was designed to give voice to those who disagree to ensure better decisions (but it often only means that the biggest jerks at the table gets the final vote).

Interesting concept but I could give you a long list of really bad decisions that have resulted from this policy.

Intel isn't alone though. Large companies commonly have critical decisions made by unqualified people who are either better connected or more frightening than their peers. In fact if you've ever worked for a large company you'll likely remember a number of times this was both true and resulted in something that was bad for the firm.

The problem is generally that the decision maker doesn't get a balanced view from their people, they get one argument designed to drive them to a preplanned decision. They generally don't know there even is an alternative view until the project fails and the folks who were silenced run in with their pre-layoff chorus of "I Told You So."

Intel is testing a tool that scans for conflict and then helps an analyst, manager, politician or other decision maker see the full extent of both sides of an issue. Not only would this help showcase where dissent resided but it could be critical to making better decisions and anticipating problems – even when the alternative view didn't change the outcome.

Making better decisions would result in a better world and benefit complex companies like Intel greatly. Not to mention that it would be an amazing tool for an analyst like me.

2) Energy Aware Network Proxy

If you are concerned about energy use and fascinated by the power of The Cloud, this is a technology you should be aware of.

The problem that this technology is focused on is that we have a huge number of devices, in the home and at work, which increasingly need to be connected to function but also need to be powered off to conserve power. The problem is, if the device is off it isn’t connected and even if it is remotely powered up, it will need to catch up with all the events it missed.

But in the case of things like DVRs, Digital Video Recorders used for both Security and TV, the event to wake the device up may require the device to be powered on to trigger. This means we have a massive number of devices that remain powered on and consume energy which are basically doing nothing.

If you try to put the device to sleep it continues to use power and may lose network connection, preventing other systems (like a SlingBox or security camera) from waking it back up again and working.

What Energy Aware Network Proxy does is create a virtual device in the cloud that acts as a proxy for the actual piece of hardware and allows the user to fully power down the device. The technology will have it replaced by the Proxy service in the Cloud until such time that the device actually needs to be powered up.

Given the number of devices both in companies and in the home that could be fully powered off but are not, the energy savings could be massive – and important not only to our finances but the survival of the race.

3) Polymorphic Dependability: CloneCloud

But what if we extended this concept from appliances all the way to PCs and created a platform that would allow the PC, or a new class of them, to evolve into a blend of PC computing and Cloud Computing?

We have available to us an increasingly unlimited amount of currently unused processing power on the web and an increasing need to reduce the complexity of the desktop. What if, in blending these resources, we could create a PC that had more capability than any we now have? And that made it cheaper, more power efficient, and made it instantly replicable?

These are just some of the amazing potential benefits associated with the concept of Polymorphic Dependability and the idea of a CloneCloud.

Basically you have a virtual PC in the Cloud that mirrors your PC and the two remain linked when you are online, dynamically shifting work load to where it can be done most efficiently. When offline the PC is just a PC but the clone in the Cloud can continue to function, doing virus scans, or calculations, searches, transcoding, analysis or other activities. When you connect again the instances sync.

The end result is you can have a PC that is effectively on 24/7 even though your personal hardware is only on when you are physically at your desk.

You could access the cloud version of your computer from your cell phone or a dumb terminal anyplace in the world and do a better job protecting it than if you were accessing your own PC. Of course all of our stuff would remain safe, backed up, and protected in the cloud so that if you lost your PC, were hit by a disaster, or had a hard drive failure you'd only have to connect to the service with a new PC to be back up and running with all your stuff again.

I'm starting to call concepts like this the Third Rebirth of the Computer. I think this represents where the market will soon go: using ever more capable appliance like computers and cloud services to transform the PC from the complex beast it is to the appliance we need it to be.

There were some amazing things at the Intel Labs event and I was both happy to survive the trip to and from it and get a glimpse of a better tomorrow.

In thinking about the event there was one other product that, while not as world shattering as the others, could be very disruptive to the current vendors. It was called RouteBricks and could conceivably replace all high performance routers with vastly cheaper and more flexible low cost server like hardware. I'm thinking that while most of this will allow me to sleep soundly, anticipating a better future, this last could keep companies like Cisco awake.

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