Intel eggheads push network envelope

Intel researchers are making progress in wireless chips, wearable sensors and VOIP security.

A high-performance wireless LAN chip, a multifunction personal sensor device and a new method of securing VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) were all on display last Wednesday at Intel as researchers from around the company played show-and-tell with media and analysts.

The still-visionary projects were among the networking ideas on display at the company's annual Research at Intel day at its Santa Clara, California, headquarters. The event included demonstrations from a wide range of areas. Researchers made few predictions about when their work would see the light of day in products, but the projects suggest the dizzying array of technologies that the chip monolith is pursuing. Naturally, many involved applications that would make use of the kinds of processors Intel makes.

An Intel team has integrated almost every component of a multi-antenna wireless LAN system into a chip less than 10 mm (0.4 inches) across that was built using CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) technology. CMOS is used to build fast, energy-efficient processors, including Intel's PC microprocessors, in high volumes.

Multiple transmitting and receiving radios with their own antennas are the key characteristic of a new generation of wireless LAN gear that is now being standardized in the emerging IEEE 802.11n standard. With more than one antenna, a wireless client or base station can send data faster, farther and more reliably in most cases. By putting many functions of traditional analog radio components into the experimental chip, Intel played to its own strengths in high-volume silicon.

A wearable sensor device demonstrated at the event could monitor a person's speech and movements as well as conditions such as light and humidity, in real time. The box, which is smaller than a deck of cards and communicates via Bluetooth, has seven sensors packed into it and can detect whether the wearer is standing or walking and quiet or talking, according to Tanzeem Choudhury, a member of Intel's research staff.

Such a device could be used to monitor the health of an elderly person living alone or track whether someone is getting enough exercise, Choudhury said. Another piece of the system is artificial intelligence software that can infer the user's activities and situation from the combined data collected by the sensors. The system isn't intended for involuntary monitoring: The user can turn sensors on and off and decide what information is sent out and to whom, she said.

Another team at the company is applying virtualization to VOIP security. They have isolated VOIP on a PC from viruses and other threats by logically dividing the system into separate domains, each with its own virtual machine, said Michael Covington, a senior research scientist in Intel's Corporate Technology Group. For example, a PC could include one domain for commodity software, such as productivity applications, and one for critical components such as the VOIP communications stack.

A virus that came from a downloaded application couldn't infect the critical components, even though VOIP could be integrated with productivity applications through a separate collaboration domain that had a special link to the critical VOIP area. Using separate domains also improves the performance of VOIP calls, because it allows the needed processing power to be set aside for VOIP, Covington said.

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Stephen Lawson

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