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How 5G and edge computing fit into the future of Intel’s traditionally chip-focused lineup

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The Vergecast interview with Intel chief engineering officer Dr. Venkata (Murthy) Renduchintala

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Intel is one of the biggest names in the tech world, with chips that quite literally are the brains behind most of the computers and servers that we use every day. But the world of computers is expanding and Intel is changing, too, with a focus on both edge computing that puts processing resources in the cloud and the power that’s available directly on the physical device.

And at the head of that is Dr. Venkata (Murthy) Renduchintala, the chief engineering officer and group president of the Technology, Systems Architecture and Client Group at Intel. Renduchintala joined Intel in 2016, having previously headed up competitor Qualcomm’s chip business.

Renduchintala is the person in charge of almost all of Intel’s hardware, from design to engineering to manufacturing. He joined Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel and news editor Chaim Gartenberg for an interview episode of The Vergecast this week to discuss the present and future of Intel, including the company’s place in the development of 5G, the changing landscape of personal- and cloud-based computing, and what the next-generation of processors could look like.

The following excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Chaim Gartenberg: Where in this data-centric approach does Intel kind of see itself fitting into this mobile space, especially as that’s becoming an increasingly central part of the computing life?

Dr. Venkata (Murthy) Renduchintala: Sure. Well again, smartphones really were, I think, the iconic devices that created the mobile internet age that we’re all experiencing now and we have 8 billion connected devices that really are a key to the way we function today. But if you wind forward in the next five to 10 years, you’re talking about a world that’s going to have 100 billion connected devices way beyond the smartphone.

Devices talking to devices without even human interaction in between, and therefore it creates a completely different landscape where the amount of data that’s going to be generated is going to just exponentially grow, and the infrastructure required to deal with that is going to have to completely transform. So I think what you’re really seeing now is the movement of people thinking about the mobile internet towards the internet of everything, and that’s going to have seismic transformations in everything around us, not least of which is going to be the networks that service all of that.

The edge and the compute of the edge is going to become more and more important because the amount of data that will be generated just can’t be consumed by traditional backhaul architectures. So I think it’s going to be a transformative period for us. In fact, I think this transition to 5G is going to be more profound on the networking side than on the device side, and I think we’ll see a transition that’s as significant in the network as the transition was from analog to digital.

Nilay Patel: But I don’t think of Intel as a traditional networking company. I think of Qualcomm as a traditional networking company. Is that part of the idea here that you’re going to move to more directly compete with Qualcomm?

Absolutely, absolutely. I mean when I joined Intel, Intel was considered to be a company that made PCs and servers and basically had 90-plus percent share in a $60 billion TAM. What we’ve really tried to do is reposition Intel’s position in the overall landscape to be a company that has about a 25 percent share in a $300 billion TAM, of which two-thirds is data centric. It’s all about the transformation of the network and the cloudification of the network where the technologies that were in the data center get distributed and integrated into the fabric of the networks we know of today. And where you go from a network delivered by bespoke pieces of silicon, each working together with single-function pieces of silicon, towards a paradigm of what we call network function virtualization — the rise of the software-defined network where workloads can be virtualized and run on a general-purpose compute engine, such as the Xeon processor for that matter — which is why as you think of the future, you should think about the assets that Intel have becoming more and more relevant across the continuum of the network landscape.

Nilay Patel: That’s the vision of kind of network-based compute that I’ve heard from Verizon, for example. I’ve heard it from AT&T. I haven’t heard it so much from other 5G vendors, right? The carriers are kind of doing this in different ways, but you’re saying that’s an overall vision. Is that the vision you’re pushing Intel toward? Is that when you go out in the market and say, “Hey, Sprint, build our network this way because our chips will be great for it.” Or is this where the entire industry is going?

I think this is where the entire industry will ultimately go and Intel is catalyzing and accelerating that trend. I think what you’re hearing from network operators is a different pace at which they’re approaching that transition based on the legacy that they have. For example, if you’re a network operator that’s putting something in from the ground up today as a day one exercise, I think the approach you’d take would be very different and very radical. For example, if you’re an entrenched operator that has a huge amount of sunk capital in 3G and 4G legacy.

So I think what you’re really seeing is sometimes it’s much easier to move when you have less baggage of the past to carry with you. It’s a bit like, for example— for the rise of an operator like Jio in India where it’s just basically completely swept the country. It’s really because it’s put a ground up networking that’s been digital and no circuit switch capability from day one as opposed to the legacy carriers that had to deal with circuit switch 2G and 3G as well.

So I think at the end of the day, the economics and the ability to deliver network evolution swiftly and rapidly is going to mean that the movement towards software-defined networking is going to be inevitable. The pace at which various operators will ultimately execute is going to be based on a function of how much they’ve already sunk in legacy networks, be it 3G or LTE, and how much are being started from a greenfield approach.

Nilay Patel: So I want to make sure we talk to you about the chips and the laptops and how many cores they have, which is of paramount interest to me. But I want to just stick with networks for a minute. I ask everybody this question. I hope you can answer it. Is 5G a race?

No, I think 5G is a-

Nilay Patel: No one says yes, by the way, so you’re fine.

... No, no.

Nilay Patel: I just don’t understand it. Like what happens if we lose?

So 5G, in my mind, is an invertible transition that will affect the globe, and the technology around the globe at various paces. I think what you’ll find is that smartphones will basically be the thing that catches the eye immediately because they’re in people’s hands, they’re personal. But ultimately what will be the truly transforming experience is what happens to the network behind it and how that transforms to deliver a variety of services that the other two couldn’t have even imagined of.

Where you’re going towards situations where the network latency can support real autonomous services as opposed to you dial a button and you wait for three seconds and then you get a circuit switch connection. It’s going to completely transform the experience and it’s not a race because, at the end of the day, the victories come in so many different shapes, forms, and sizes. There isn’t one game we’re playing. It’s a completely transformative experience of our digital lives and that’s going to happen at different paces at elements to our lives that have different importance to different people.

Nilay Patel: But this doesn’t sound like you’re putting chips in consumer products. It sounds like you’re selling a lot of gear to operators.

I think of it differently. I think that what you’re really seeing is a greater and greater interconnectivity and coupling between what’s happening at the network and what’s happening in the devices, and the way in which the services are delivered and the way in which applications are started and where they’re run is going to become a much more harmonious interplay between what’s run in the network and what’s run on the device.

So I think you have to start thinking about a much more continuous type of mindset in terms of the whole client-server model we’re used to. This is going to be a scenario where the client, the edge, and the network are going to work in harmony and in a synchronized manner to deliver a really immersive user experience. So I think it’s going to be a much more unified concept.