Intel has revealed a yearning for the early days of computing, unveiling a modular PCI Express-based system design with a central card dubbed the Element.
The Altair 8800, built around Intel's 8080 processor by MITS in 1974, is generally credited with the launch of the microcomputing revolution. The system's internals would be largely unrecognisable to a modern computing enthusiast: Rather than a central motherboard with memory and processor, then peripheral devices on cards, the entire computer was made up of discrete cards connected over what started life as the Altair Bus and then became standardised as the S-100 Bus - a fully-passive backplane built of edge connectors on either a long ribbon cable or, in later designs, a printed circuit board.
Intel's Element, unveiled last night at an event attended by AnandTech, is for all intents and purposes the same concept upgraded to modern technology. The Element itself is a PCI Express card with an Intel Xeon processor, memory, and storage on-board, which is inserted into a largely passive backplane comprised of as many PCIe slots as the company can cram into a housing. Additional boards, including graphics processors and accelerators, can be inserted alongside the Element - and when it comes time to upgrade, the element can be removed and its successor quickly inserted.
It's a concept Intel's Systems Product Group has been working on for some time. 'Part of our, part of our strategy, I suppose, is to enable as much flexibility as we can, so that no matter who you are you're able to have the right compute for your needs, and you are perhaps given more opportunity and more flexibility moving forward with modular compute solutions,' Ed Barkhuysen explained in an interview back in March this year. 'So it's something we've been working on for a couple of years, and we have some new products coming out later this year, again, to enable people to have a little bit more choice around that.
'For example, I want to invest a lot of money into my all-in-one, and I love this particular screen or this particular laptop that's perhaps a little bit more ruggedised, but over time I would like to be able to upgrade the compute a little bit more easily in a manner which as a consumer I would be able to go and do. Today that can be a little bit tricky, depending on which type of CPUs you're using and the type of device you're purchasing. So, we want to try to grow that flexibility so that we have more choice and more flexibility for that customer.'
The Element, then, is only part of the picture, being as it is somewhat badly shaped for installation into a compact all-in-one design. 'We wouldn't want to limit it to a particular type of form factor,' Barkhuysen explained at the time. 'We really want to enable that for the broader industry, how can you have an easy-to-integrate component, if you like, which is bringing comms and memory and CPU performance onto a package which is easily swappable over time. There are various benefits from a business point of view, when you think about, for example, from a supply chain perspective, or from a business where you want to have a particular line of devices and you want to delay the integration of the compute to give your customers more flexibility, or another customer who's bought one of these devices now has the ability to upgrade over time whilst maintaining the investment in your form factor.
'There will be modular products coming out from Intel, certainly for the foreseeable future. You know, we anticipate that that modular strategy could be a key part of our business strategy moving forward.'
Intel has not shared a launch date for either the Element nor its smaller form-factor modular designs, but the fact it was showing the technology to press last night suggests it is going to be appearing sooner rather than later.
November 6 2020 | 17:30