PCI Express Delivery

PCI Express has been heralded as being the biggest change in computer hardware for more than a decade. As the much-hyped technology hits the Middle East, Windows Middle East takes a look at what makes it so special

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By  Peter Branton Published  August 1, 2004

Introduction|~||~||~|Let's face it, there's a lot more hype than substance in the IT industry. While just about every product that gets released these days seems to attract superlative terms, the fact is really radical products, ones that really do make big changes, only tend to come along every decade or so. The last big big change to computer hardware was probably the introduction of the PCI bus a decade ago. Its about time for a new one. As if on cue, PCI Express has suddenly exploded this summer. After a lot of talk about the technology, Intel's long-awaited launch of its 915 and 925 chipsets (formerly known as Grantsdale and Alderwood) in June has kicked off some frantic activity, with vendors scrambling to release new kit that supports the standard. Already a number of PCI Express-based (or, at the very least, PCI Express ready) machines have been released in the Middle East, from vendors including HP, Dell and Future Digital. At the US launch for the 915 and 925 chipsets, Intel executives declared that they represented the biggest platform change for more than a decade. "The last time we had a major platform makeover is over 12 years ago," said Bill Siu, Intel's vice president and general manager of the desktop platform group, at the time of the launch. While Intel is obviously very keen to promote its new chipsets, the chip giant is hardly the only company that has got behind PCI Express. Graphics cards have appeared from the likes of FIC, and all the vendors Windows spoke to expressed their enthusiasm for the new technology. Indeed, at the Computex trade show in Taiwan, held at the beginning of June, we saw a number of products based on PCI Express, including motherboard offerings from the likes of Gigabyte and Micro-Star. ||**||Origins|~||~||~|Of course, while all this recent activity suggests that PCI Express has sprung from nowhere, in fact its been touted as the next big thing for quite a while now. Intel was telling its developers at its 2001 US Intel Developers Forum (IDF) that "it is time for a third generation follow up to PCI" and it was touting the technology heavily at the Fall IDF in 2003 (see Windows Middle East, January 2004). Nor, like any new technology, has it been without its hiccups, with Intel having to admit within a week of the 915 and 925 chipsets launch that a manufacturing error meant that thousands of chipsets that had gone out to its motherboard and PC maker partners have had to be returned. This has reputedly caused a short-term delay on some products being rolled out by Intel's partners, although this should have been mostly resolved by the time you are reading this feature. All of this is all well and good of course, but what exactly is PCI Express and why is everybody getting so excited about it? Well, firstly, it's a high-speed peripheral interface, which is intended to replace the older PCI (peripheral component interconnect) I/O bus in your computer. The PCI bus essentially allows you to join peripherals such as the modem and sound cards with the main processor. That PCI bus has been around for about 10 years (it itself replaced the earlier ISA bus) and while it has lasted well, today's more powerful CPUs and gigabit networking require rather more bandwidth than the rather stately 133 megabytes per second allowed by PCI. For the new, exciting, products on the horizon that computer makers think we will want (and hope we will want to buy) that slower bandwidth doesn't work for the faster CPU speeds, faster memory, speedier graphics cards, quicker storage and so on needed. Actually for graphics, the slow old PCI bus was largely abandoned a long time ago, with the introduction of the Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) standard a few years ago. Most graphics cards today fit into the AGP port on your computer. AGP initially offered twice the speed of PCI, 266Mbps, although most new systems now offer AGP 8X, which offers a pretty respectable bandwidth of around 2.1G gigabytes per second (GBps) data rate. With PCI Express however, data throughput is boosted up to 4GBps, double the fastest speed you can get today. Even better, PCI Express is a serial, rather than parallel, interface, so data can travel in both directions at once, which kicks the bandwidth up to a cumulative bi-directional 8GBps. ||**||Getting graphic|~||~||~|Unsurprisingly therefore, among the first people to get seriously excited about PCI Express are the graphics card makers, who can see the opportunity to sell more powerful graphics cards to bandwidth-hungry gamers keen for the very best visual experience possible. "PCI Express is going to be very big change indeed," says Nils Horstbrink, head of technical marketing for graphics card giant ATI EMEA. "It helps us because you get a massively increased bandwidth that you didn't get before. Having access to that processed data is good for games developers but its also good for us. PCI has been around for 10 years now and PCI Express should be here for another 10 years at least." "New technology always creates new demand," says Sunny Narain, senior sales manager for XFX. "I'm sure a lot of gamers will want to see what PCI Express can do." Nurain is confident that PCI Express is "going to revolutionise the entire graphics industry" but cautions against expecting anything to happen too soon: "I think getting PCI Express will initially be more of a fashion statement, but maybe in six months time or so we'll see people changing over." Of course, its not just gamers that want more bandwidth, all sorts of technologies could benefit, such as multimedia applications, digital video editing and so on. Intel is promoting the 915 and 925 chipsets as making the digital home a reality and are heavily focusing on the benefits it will provide. So are there any drawbacks to the new wonder technology? Well, one fairly big one is that if you want to get on the PCI Express then it's a bit of a one-way ticket. While PCI Express technology is compatible with PCI, its not plug-compatible, so you won't be able to bring much from your current system over should you decide to upgrade. The connections are physically different, with PCI Express needing longer slots on the motherboard. Perhaps the biggest ticket item in a high-power system is your graphics card. Any user who has just invested in one of ATi's or nVidia's latest graphics cards won't be able to use it in a PCI Express machine - the new Intel chipsets don't provide any support for legacy AGP. So should you want to go in for a new motherboard based on the new chipset you will need a new processor and graphics card as well, all of which is going to quickly mount up. As with all new technologies, PCI Express is also still finding its feet, and most industry watchers are saying that we should expect much better performing machines in a few months time to become available, which will really take advantage of the improved bandwidth it offers. Of course, if you're looking to buy a machine now and have it future proofed for the next few years, then you really should be looking at a PCI Express-based model. All that extra bandwidth is going to come in useful. Let's face it, most new technologies do get hyped a lot, and they don’t always deserve it. However, sometimes some technologies do deserve it. This time, believe the hype. ||**||

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