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Issue Date: June 2007

Intel eggheads plot security, multimode mobile advances

June 2007
Rhonda Ascierto

The world's biggest chipmaker yesterday revealed some details of how it plans to embed more security capabilities into silicon and how it is building multimode radios for mobile devices, among other projects, during the annual Intel Research Day at its Santa Clara, California headquarters.

Intel, during its previously announced broader restructuring efforts, discovered it had 'ramped down' some resources on the research side but not on the development side, which created a 'valley of death' gap, said CTO Justin Rattner, during his opening remarks yesterday. However, to the collective R&D; department's surprise, that gap had recently been corrected with additional research people and dollars, he said.
"We now have some 80 of these path-finding projects underway jointly between research and development," he said.
While having joint R&D; programs was not in any formal plan for this year, he said Intel expects to grow such projects in 2008, Rattner said. "We expect a much higher hit rate in terms of moving technology from the research side to the development side," he said.
One of yesterday's demonstrations was the first public prototype of software that can detect rootkits, which help hackers hide malicious software progams, in the modules of an operating system kernel. In a virtualised computing environment, the so-called runtime kernel rootkit detection technology runs in an isolated partition where it performs a white-listing service.
The demoed software first checked the individual modules in memory for rootkits. It then scanned the links between modules, and then the links between modules and the CPU's interrupt table, known as the IDT.
Intel researchers are now working to build these detection capabilities into the hardware, potentially in a chipset or on one of a processor's cores, said Intel senior network software engineer Hormuzd Khosravi.
Intel had been working on the prototype software for the past two years or so, he said. "The next phase is to see how it gets into the hardware."
Research that is far closer to commercialisation includes Intel's multimode radio project, which has several moving parts.
Among them is a reconfigurable wireless antenna for multistandard support within mobile devices. Traditionally, different wireless radios, such as cellular, WiFi and WiMax, each have their own antenna on a device. Problem is, this takes up valuable silicon real estate and can cause interference between the radios.
Intel has developed a single multimode antenna that can handle all the different flavors of MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) WiFi, including the yet-to-be-standardised 802.11n. And because it supports all wireless bands, it would enable a wireless device to work anywhere in the world, said Intel senior RF design engineer for handheld platforms, Helen Pan.
The switching system on the antenna is software controlled and it dynamically reconfigures based on signal strength. "No matter where you are it will choose the best connection for you," Pan said. Users also can manually configure which wireless mode they want their device to run on.
Pan demoed a notebook with the antenna, which was configured only for MIMO WiFi and cellular. She said the antenna in its current form could not be used in PDAs because it was not yet small enough.
Nor could it currently be used in cellphones because they do not support MIMO, Pan said.
But these are still relatively early days for the technology, which likely will be commercialised during the next couple of years.
Intel also is developing a flexible front-end module, or FEM, for multiradio devices. A FEM handles the analog signal processing for a mobile device. Today, devices have several FEMs, one for each different wireless standard. But Intel has come up with a singular FEM that can support all the different types of WiFi, including n, and WiMax, said Russ Hodgin in Intel's technical marketing engineering team. "The goal is see what else it can support," he said.
The upshot of having a single FEM, which also boasts just one reconfigurable power amp, is a component that is about one third the size of a typical FEM footprint and, at less than $2 to product, about one-third the price. This promises to ensure smaller, cheaper mobile devices in the future.
Intel scientists at its St Petersburg, Russia lab also are working on a reconfigurable baseband processor, which can be roughly thought of as the CPU of a wireless radio.
All these efforts are part of Intel's broader vision of a digital multiradio device, said Intel CTO Justin Rattner. "It is aimed really at creating end-to-end architecture that is almost entirely digital, with probably one or two passive components - our vision is the future of radio is digital," he said.
He said Intel has been busy developing programming techniques for this reconfigurable architecture, which creates all sorts of certification issues also. "As part of our policy activities we are talking to the FCC here in the US and other bodies internationally about how we go through the process of certifying a baseband radio that is not any particular standard," he said.
In total, Intel has 15 Intel R&D; sites around the world that involve nearly 1000 Intel researchers.
Some of the most exciting research is conducted via industrial partnerships, which Intel actively seeks out, but the media or the public does not get a look in because those are proprietary, said Intel CTO Justin Rattner.
"Intel is not a basic research shop," he said. "We undertake activities that are focused primarily at the businesses we undertake today."
However, about 18% of the company's R&D; work is in exploratory areas. "So we are not locked into the current businesses and current roadmap," he said. "We also work in areas that may represent new businesses."
Yesterday, the company announced a new corporate R&D; blog, called Research@Intel, which Rattner said was aimed at engaging people directly with senior Intel researchers.
Source: Computergram


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