System Builders Preparing For Intel's Sandy Bridge Processor

Intel's upcoming Sandy Bridge processor is grabbing the attention of the custom system builder community ahead of its release early next year. System builders say they like the opportunities offered by the processor's integrated graphics and increased performance, but they're hungry for more details in order to prepare for its entrance into the fast-paced processor market.

Speaking at COMDEXVirtual, Intel CEO Paul Otellini on Wednesday said that Sandy Bridge will power a new generation of video streaming technology based on integrated graphics on the CPU.

Otellini went as far as comparing the anticipated impact of Sandy Bridge to the revolutionary Pentium processor product Intel introduced 17 years ago.

"It (Sandy Bridge) is a 486 to Pentium kind of jump," said Otellini. "What the Pentium did was enable the beginning of the multimedia (computing) era by virtue of capabilities built into it. It was the right product at the right time. We are now about to move to the era of visualization -- we may be in the middle of that movement today -- where everything is about video, whether it is consumer or corporate. It is going to be about not just watching video but sharing video and video conferencing."

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Several system builders said they are ready to partner with Intel in offering improved visualization technology in a power-efficient solution. However, some would like to hear more specifics from Intel before committing to graphics technology built onto the CPU die instead of high-end discrete graphics.

And while a breakthrough in technology could lead to long-term opportunities for customers looking to update their hardware, the possibility of system builders' actually losing some business opportunity was raised as Sandy Bridge's integrated solution could limit the value-add that system builders can offer.

One system builder listening to Otellini's presentation said he agreed with the Pentium comparison, saying that Sandy Bridge represents a great step forward in technology.

"I definitely feel the custom system builder will benefit from Sandy Bridge, for the timing is right for a massive PC refresh and this technology is one of the more compelling reasons for an end-user to replace that old Pentium PC," said Tim Ulmen, principal at Midwest IT solutions group, a Wichita, Kan.-based system builder. "With the initiative to go Green and the emphasis on cost, a PC based on Sandy Bridge technology should be an easy sell."

Ulmen mentioned a few advantages, including "higher graphics quality without the need for a discrete graphics card which leads to less power consumption, an overall lowering of the bill of materials to build a quality graphics PC, and an overall size reduction of the PC chassis which will prove beneficial in markets such as digital signage and digital health and with less power requirements end-users will realize a savings in energy costs."

Next: Optimism, With Some Reservations

Kent Tibbils, vice president of marketing at ASI, a Fremont, Calif.-based system builder, offered a similarly optimistic point of view, though he was quick to point out that these remain expectations that aren't guaranteed of being realized.

"We'd obviously be very excited to see that kind of change in technology, but we haven't seen any kind of product yet," Tibbils said. "If that's what Intel is projecting, then it's good for the channel to have that dramatic change. System builders and VARs are very nimble. They have the ability to adjust to this kind of change. "

That lack of specificity is tempering many system builders' optimism. "I keep waiting for someone to show me what this is going to do to me," Todd Swank, vice president of marketing at Burnsville, Minn.-based system builder Nor-Tech " I want to know what specifically is going to be substantially different to make this such an exciting launch. It consumes less power and has less latency, I understand that, but as far as performance what is it going to enable exactly? What is so revolutionary about it?"

Far from seeing Sandy Bridge as a revolutionary offering, Nick Gold, director of business development at Baltimore, Md.-based Chesapeake Systems said Intel may have some ground to make up in the area of graphics, and Sandy Bridge may not be able to help in that effort.

"Sandy Bridge has been seen by some as a way Apple can move their laptops into higher-performance territory," Gold said. "But the reality is, even Intel's next-generation integrated graphics systems lag behind NVIDIA's offerings for the ultra-mobile realm.’

"I think what can safely be said is that many folks are totally frustrated by Intel's inability to work out licensing arrangements with NVIDIA for their newer chipsets. Intel seems bent on pushing their own integrated graphics processors, and the fact is, they are simply not competitive with the alternatives," Gold added.

Without being privy to technical specifications, Tibbils pointed to the long-term business that an integrated processor could create. "If someone buys a system with integrated graphics solution and somewhere down the line an application comes out or the user has something they want to do that's a better fit for a discrete card, that could be an opportunity for an upgrade," he said.

Erik Stromquist, COO of Computer Technology Link, a Portland, Oregon-based solution provider offered similarly measured optimism. "From what we’ve seen so far, the product is delivering on its promises," Stromquist said. "CTL plans to be on time to market on both our mobile and desktop platforms."

Next: The Implicatiosn Of Integrated Graphics

As much of an opportunity as integrated graphics may represent, Tibbils said Sandy Bridge is not unique in offering an integrated graphics solution that's convenient for both end users and resellers.

"Integrated graphics isn't necessarily a new trend," he said. "Integrated graphics is always getting better and better. It's pushing the discrete graphics higher and even more into a niche space. With integrated graphics, you can only adapt anytime there's a processor cycle, whereas discrete graphics cards can come to market when the technology is ready. "

Joshua Liberman, president of Albuquerque, N.M.-based solution provider Net Sciences, said this integrated solution would be able to achieve what others have promised.

"The promise of integrated graphics has always been largely unfulfilled. However, with the OS and even the browser demanding real 3D muscle, the stakes are higher than ever," Liberman said. "The ability to cut both costs and integration complexity is always appealing. With its true integration of the GPU and CPU, along with integral FSB architecture, Sandy Bridge seems poised to actually deliver on these promises."

"As Intel System Builders, this leap in integrated video performance will mean an end for the need to add lower-end (sub $100) video cards, saving us time, cost and third-party video vendor support hassles. And, as champions of the Intel VPro architecture, the ability to do KVM type support remotely (which is not possible with add-on video cards) is the icing on the cake," Liberman said.

In addition to not being quite as unique or transformative as Otellini's keynote suggested, Swank said Sandy Bridge could have some adverse effects on system builders.

"The more integrated the products become, the less value-add we can manufacture in the U.S. Because everything is on the CPU, the more Original Design Manufacturers will take over," he said. "The channel has survived by reselling tier 1 notebooks. Now with the transition to netbooks, very few in the US are making their system themselves, they're making it overseas."

"It's getting more difficult for system builders to differentiate themselves with the actual product from the tier 1 ODM. From that perspective as a system builder it’s a concern that it will take away that revenue stream," Swank added. "From an overall technology perspective, it’s a very exciting product launch, with opportunities for new revenue streams."

Next: A Double-Edged Sword

Whether the arrival of integrated graphics solutions from a chipmaker with processors inside 90 percent of systems worldwide poses a threat to discrete graphics cards, or whether performance enhancements to discrete graphics processors will in fact undermine graphics integration, remains to be seen.

"Intel still thinks the vast majority of the market is on CPUs, but GPUs is the more exciting space," Swank said. "The number of cores available on these things is so high it adds a lot of performance and saves energy, without creating problems on the CPUs. You also have to have customized code to take advantage of that and that's expensive to develop"

However, with the high-expectations for Sandy Bridge, particularly with regard to video compression, the challenge could go the other way too.

"I am sure the pending release of Sandy Bridge has the manufacturers of discrete video cards a bit nervous," said Ulmen.