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How PCI Works

PCI Standards and PCI Express

As processor speeds steadily climb in the GHz range, many companies are working feverishly to develop a next-generation bus standard. Many feel that PCI, like ISA before it, is fast approaching the upper limit of what it can do.

All of the proposed new standards have something in common. They propose doing away with the shared-bus technology used in PCI and moving to a point-to-point switching connection. This means that a direct connection between two devices (nodes) on the bus is established while they are communicating with each other. Basically, while these two nodes are talking, no other device can access that path. By providing multiple direct links, such a bus can allow several devices to communicate with no chance of slowing each other down.

HyperTransport, a standard proposed by Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD), is touted by AMD as the natural progression from PCI. For each session between nodes, it provides two point-to-point links. Each link can be anywhere from 2 bits to 32 bits wide, supporting a maximum transfer rate of 6.4 GB per second. HyperTransport is designed specifically for connecting internal computer components to each other, not for connecting external devices such as removable drives. The development of bridge chips will enable PCI devices to access the HyperTransport bus.

PCI-Express, developed by Intel (and formerly know as 3GIO or 3rd Generation I/O), looks to be the "next big thing" in bus technology. At first, faster buses were developed for high-end servers. These were called PCI-X and PCI-X 2.0, but they weren't suitable for the home computer market, because it was very expensive to build motherboards with PCI-X.

PCI-Express is a completely different beast - it is aimed at the home computer market, and could revolutionize not only the performance of computers, but also the very shape and form of home computer systems. This new bus isn't just faster and capable of handling more bandwidth than PCI. PCI-Express is a point-to-point system, which allows for better performance and might even make the manufacturing of motherboards cheaper. PCI-Express slots will also accept older PCI cards, which will help them become popular more quickly than they would if everyone's PCI components were suddenly useless.

It's also scalable. A basic PCI-Express slot will be a 1x connection. This will provide enough bandwidth for high-speed Internet connections and other peripherals. The 1x means that there is one lane to carry data. If a component requires more bandwidth, PCI-Express 2x, 4x, 8x, and 16x slots can be built into motherboards, adding more lanes and allowing the system to carry more data through the connection. In fact, PCI-Express 16x slots are already available in place of the AGP graphics card slot on some motherboards. PCI-Express 16x video cards are at the cutting edge right now, costing more than $500. As prices come down and motherboards built to handle the newer cards become more common, AGP could fade into history.

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