Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Thinking Outside the PC

Ton Steenman is an Intel vice president and general manager of the company's Embedded and Communications Group. While only recently taking over as head of the business after Doug Davis went off to run the newly established Netbook and Tablet Group, Steenman has been instrumental in establishing Intel's position as an embedded supplier to the communications, automotive, retail and industrial control markets.
Ton Steenman, VP and GM of Intel’s Embedded and Communications Group

Intel has had a successful embedded business for many years, but with the advent of a new low-power Atom architecture over the past few years, the prospects are growing as more and more devices connect to the Internet and communicate, from digital signs and ATM machines to retail kiosks and cars, plus beyond.

In a recent interview with ZDNet UK, Steenman said he was tracking over 4,500 design engagements and over 1,500 design wins with Atom SoCs (system on chip), 60 percent of which are with customers who have never used Intel architecture before. We sat down to discuss some of this with Steenman on the eve of his Intel Developer Forum keynote speech in Beijing.

Q: You already have a successful business with over $1 billion in revenue. What is your vision and where do you go from here?
Steenman: We are connecting embedded devices, delivering great experiences and enabling productivity, and these are bringing benefits to society. There is a group of embedded applications that offer a very rich experience for consumers. This is really a transition that has happened over the past 3 years as the expectation of consumers has shifted to much more interactivity with embedded devices, and all of these embedded devices have become connected. There are applications like self check-out at retail stores, ticket kiosks at airports or digital signs that you find in the mall. These are all embedded applications and consumers are exposed to everyday. You might not even notice it, but computers are all around you nowadays. What we're trying to do is make those experiences very rich.

We're also delivering productivity benefits to industries. Platforms that we deliver in industrial control really help factories become more efficient. We bring higher- performance capabilities to machines that are building things, and these machines can become faster and more accurate. Speed and accuracy are the two dimensions that will improve productivity of a factory.

We also need to provide highly scalable networks. Keep in mind that there's going to be billions of connected devices soon, and you need a highly scalable network infrastructure to connect all of these things so that the network can be managed and continue to connect to devices and reliably deliver services. We are helping equipment manufacturers and service providers build scalable intelligence and performance into their networks.

Q: How do you differentiate yourself in the embedded business?
Embedded logo

Steenman: Nobody in the industry today is looking at this opportunity the way we do, which is from the perspective of "how do we really connect all of these devices together and deliver a rich experience?"

We're showing how technology can have a real positive impact on society in the form of great experiences for people and in the form of productivity for businesses and service providers. Productivity eventually drives increases in the standard of living for everybody. At a real technology level, we are looking at security, manageability and connectivity as the three tenants we have to put in place so that the platform can deliver rich experiences, productivity and scalable networks.

Q: Where are your biggest opportunities for growth?
Steenman: There's a big opportunity in China because they are building out a lot of infrastructure to improve the standard of living for so many people. A large amount of infrastructure has to be put into place to enable this, including smart grid technology so everyone has electricity and health care. So that even people in rural villages can have access to health care treatment, better communication networks and transportation, with smart roads and railway systems that leverage the Internet. Most of these projects have a tremendous amount of embedded technology in it. The high-speed railway system just put in a system of Atom-based smart cameras.

China is on a tear. They're doing things fast, and time to market for these technologies is a very important element for them. They like the Intel architecture platform because of its standardization and that there are so many developers out there who understand Intel architecture.

Q: In many cases you're reaching out to customers outside of Intel's core business. What are they asking for?
Steenman: The biggest demand is that we help them with technology and support so they can focus on their applications, and integrating and deploying their system -- like ticketing kiosks that need to be integrated into the overall capabilities of their high-speed rail build out. They're asking us to help them integrate our specific technology into their application.

Q: Why are customers choosing Atom, and what are they converting from if new to Intel?
Interactive embedded retail kiosk is an example of some of the new kinds of devices Intel is enabling with its Atom processor.
Steenman: There are some designs that we're winning from ARM, but there is also just a lot of new applications being developed. Atom is particularly important to our customers because it allows them to build applications in small form factors and have low-power consumption. Atom is giving them a good balance between power consumption and performance.

In China, Geely Auto and Shenzhen Hazen Auto Electronics are two companies building on Atom for the auto industry. In their older models they had ARM processors in there. They're now using Atom because they really want to build a connected vehicle. They need enough performance to add things to the vehicle over time, so they want a highly scalable platform.

Q: How do you leverage other parts of the company?
Steenman: We have good collaboration with Intel Labs, and we're doing a number of research programs with them. For the more immediate designs and opportunities, we collaborate with our Software and Services Group (SSG). Clearly software becomes more and more important, so SSG plays a very critical role with us enabling many of those software stacks and applications on our platform. We do a lot of work with Wind River Systems, the software company Intel purchased a few years ago that builds software stacks on top of Intel architecture for the automotive and communications industries. They are tremendously helpful as we build out our solutions.

Q: What about security, what are you doing there?
Steenman: We're engaging with McAfee now that the acquisition is complete. Just as security is important for computing in general, it is just as important for embedded devices. Almost every company I talk to says that as their applications become connected, and as their applications connect to the Internet, security we can provide at the device level will become a major attribute of differentiation. It's going to be something that more people really worry about, so the collaboration with McAfee is going to be very important for us to enable security in certain dimensions on these connected embedded devices.

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