Intel plots 'client-aware' cloud services

The chip maker has written some APIs to reveal a PC's performance characteristics to the online service it is connecting to

Intel wants the cloud to be a bit smarter.

The company is developing technologies that would allow applications and services delivered over the Internet to know more about the client device they are being accessed from, be it a PC, a tablet or a smartphone, and to tailor the services accordingly.

It doesn't sound that new: Application servers already tailor content to fit the screen of a smartphone, for example. But Intel wants to go a step further and provide detailed information about the processor type, the available bandwidth and even the amount of battery power left.

That should allow Web sites and advertisers to make wider use of rich content, such as high-definition video, instead of having to cater to a "lowest common denominator." They could deliver one version of a site to customers on a high-speed Wi-Fi network, for example, and a simple Web page to customers on a weak cellular connection.

It could also benefit e-commerce sites. For example, could warn customers with full shopping carts that their laptop battery was running low and advise them to check out quickly, or tell them their selections will be retained if they go offline and have to log in again later.

The technology isn't complicated. Intel has published beta versions of APIs (application programming interfaces) for accessing data about a device's processor, bandwidth and battery life. Web developers can employ the APIs by adding some fairly simple Javascript to their applications, said Daniel Chang, director of strategic alliances at NetSuite, which is piloting the technology.

NetSuite is best known for its online CRM (customer relationship management) applications, but it also hosts e-commerce Web sites for about 2,000 businesses. A half dozen of those stores, mostly those that want to display rich content such as high-definition video, are testing the APIs, Chang said. Gproxy, a Web design and hosting company in Miami, is part of the same pilot program.

"The technology is already there, it's just a question of adoption," Chang said.

One challenge for Intel is getting the main Web browsers to implement its APIs. The company said it's in talks with "a broad range" of service providers, software vendors and PC makers about supporting the technology, but it won't yet say who. In the meantime, e-commerce sites testing the APIs have to ask their end users to download a browser plug-in.

Intel says the processor API should work with devices based on x86 chips from other vendors. It hasn't tested it with non-Intel processors, but the API uses the CPU ID and the "processor brand string" to determine the processor type, and these are parts of the standard x86 instruction set, said Greg Boitano, marketing manager for Intel's Business Client Platform division.

"It's not necessarily exclusive to one chip provider or another. It's really more about the value you deliver through that chip," he said.

However, the processor API doesn't work with ARM-based chips, at least in its current version, cutting out most smartphones and tablets.

As well as making the Internet smarter, moving forward Intel hopes the client-aware project will boost demand for its processors. The company often adds new security and management features to its chips, and providing more ways to exploit those could give customers more reasons to choose Intel over a competitor.

"They can say, 'If you pick Intel you get these additional APIs, you get security built in,'" Chang said.

Boitano wouldn't talk about any specific plans for additional APIs, but he implied that a security API could be in the works. For example an application might be able to detect whether a processor has Intel's Trusted Execution Technology (TXT), which aims to guard against root kits.

"Imagine I'm out in the field, I have a PC and I want to access an application back in the data center. I ping it, and the app has the ability to determine whether I have TXT running on my device, and therefore whether I am permitted to download this secure data," he said.

The next version of Intel's vPro processor, aimed at business users, is expected to include a two-factor authentication technology, and Intel's McAfee acquisition should allow it to embed more sophisticated security technologies in the future.

Intel also hopes PC makers will use the APIs as a way to differentiate their products. For example, Dell, which is also working with Intel on the technology, might be able to use the security API to offer its business customers a secure, end-to-end system for delivering applications and data to mobile workers.

"Any number of folks could choose to do this to gain a competitive advantage," Boitano said.

Intel hasn't said much about its "client-aware cloud" project since it introduced the idea last October. But customers will be hearing more about it in the coming quarters, said Rick Echevarria, general manager of Intel's Business Client Platforms division, at a Dell event in San Francisco this month.

In fact, Intel is holding an event in Oregon next month to lay out its "Cloud 2015 Vision." The client -aware cloud is one part of that. The others, aimed more at the data center, are data federation -- or sharing data among different cloud platforms -- and the automation of cloud services.

"We've been somewhat quiet about the cloud," Echevarria said this month. "We've allowed the industry and those who don't understand end-point computing to position the cloud as simple act of presenting data through a browser. We believe the cloud has a lot more potential than that."

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James Niccolai

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