Intel packs virtualization, manageability into vPro desktop platform

Intel on Monday said it will offer the first samples of vPro, a platform for business PC customers, before the end of this quarter, building more management tools, virtualization and energy efficiency features into its desktop processors and chipsets.

The platform will include Intel’s Core dual-core CPU, the second generation of Intel’s Active Management Technology (IAMT) and Intel VT virtualization features. In an event which was broadcast from its Santa Clara, Calif. headquarters, Intel chief executive Paul Otellini said the “seed units” of vPro this quarter would be followed up by shipments in the third quarter. In 2007, Intel plans to build quad-core CPUs into vPro, and extend the virutalization capabilities of VT beyond microprocessors and into hard drives, I/O and other parts of the system.

“IT shops don’t just go down to Circuit City and buy PCs,” said Otellini in announcing the seed units. “They run them in pilot mode before deploying them. This will give them a stable image program to make sure they have transparency and resiliency.”

Much like Centrino, which Intel introduced in 2003 to combine its Pentium M mobile processor and related chipsets for wireless connectivity, Intel is hoping vPro will reinvent the desktop market. Although PCs still account for about 85 million units, or about 70 per cent of all computing systems sold, Otellini said, support costs have risen to twice the cost of the hardware. That means enterprise CIOs are forced to put their “hard assets” – their people – to deal with power off problems, OSes that won’t boot or “worst of all, having to bring the PC to the IT shop.”

The IAMT features in vPro, Otellini said, will go “far beyond passive instrumentation” to address management challenges that companies face daily, including auditing a PC that’s crashed, or remotely repairing an operating system that has shut down.

EDS has been working with Intel on vPro for the last 18 months and has already deployed it in some of the 400 customers with whom it works worldwide. Kim Stevenson, EDS’s vice-president, said so far the platform has allowed her team to identify specific hardware and software problems and reduce desk-side visits by 50 to 75 per cent in some cases. It has also decreased the deployment time for mission-critical software by 90 per cent, she said.

“With my service desk agents, I can change the work they do, and integrate all those operations around PC updates, patches,” she said.

The VT features in vPro, meanwhile, will offer create a partition that splits desktop environments into two, Otellini said, one of which will be dedicated to users and another in which IT departments can run software-based security appliances. Packets of bad traffic, for instance, would be cut off by the appliance in the second partition before they could reach user data in the first partition, Otellini said. Intel is working with a number of companies to develop virtual appliances to work in vPro environments, including Symantec, who also participated in the launch.

John Thompson, Symantec’s president, said vPro will be particularly effective at dealing with “modular malicious code,” which are less visible than the big chunks of code that make up worms or virus that IT managers watch for today.

“It is a smaller applet that calls down other packets and assembles itself to something much more destructive. It tries to disable the firewall,” he said. “What you’re trying to do is protect the user space, as opposed to protecting the environment itself.”

Otellini said the platform would also lower the electricity costs of large businesses with a fleet of 50,000 PCs or more by $1.2 million annually. Intel has been emphasizing performance per watt as a key metric instead of speed for the last two years.

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