A new revolution begins at Intel with ‘Ireland inside’

15 Oct 2013

Philip Moynagh (centre), general manager of Intel's Quark platform

Much of Ireland’s industrial history features products that have been designed elsewhere and have been assembled on Irish shores. All of that changed recently, when a team of Intel engineers unveiled a piece of hardware with the words ‘Designed in Ireland’ emblazoned on it, and with that, Ireland had been propelled to the higher end of the innovation hierarchy globally.

To look at the product, the Galileo development board based on the Quark Q1000 chip, is to see chips and circuits. What underscores its arrival are predictions by Cisco that indicate by 2020 some 50bn connected devices in the world will look to it as one of the foundations of a massive movement of invention by ordinary people.

The device had been unveiled at the European leg of the Maker Faire in Rome recently, a gathering of young innovators who are taking parts of technology consumers take for granted today to come up with all kinds of inventions, from handmade smartphones to wearable computers, robots and even Wi-Fi-controlled lawnmowers.

For US$53bn-a-year chip giant Intel, which employs 4,000 people in Ireland, the significance of the arrival of the new technology is two-fold. Firstly, it creates a fourth pillar targeting new trends in wearable computing and the ‘internet of things’ alongside its traditional commanding position in servers and computers and in mobile devices, where it is still a challenger.

Secondly, the 70-strong team led by Philip Moynagh, general manager of Intel’s Quark platform, developed the technology and had it manufactured in a record two-month period as a “start-up within a multinational”, ushering in a new way of doing things across the 104,000-strong organisation.

“Sixty days ago we decided to spark a new way of thinking,” said Brian Kzranich, CEO of Intel. He added that the Galileo project has been a response to fears that if Intel didn’t act fast to create technologies for the internet of things it would be left behind the next big growth curve.

“I love to make things myself,” Krzanich said. He likes to work on his own personal technology projects, and said that like many of the DIY makers of today who are blending technology with art to create inventions, Intel is a maker, too, but at an atomic level.

Kzranich issued a challenge across the entire Intel organisation to have such a device manufactured in time for the Maker Faire. Local Intel workers in Ireland, including Moynagh, and his colleague Noel Murphy, responded to the challenge and enlisted the support of IDA Ireland, the country’s inward investment promotion agency. The IDA saw what the success of the project could mean for the country in terms of the global innovation hierarchy.

Holding the finished device in his hands last week, Krzanich said: “We started a skunkworks project in Ireland with the support of the IDA to fund a low-cost piece of silicon that could work with the internet of things.”

Arduino software

The Galileo dev board uses an open-source software called Arduino, which conventional wisdom states is favoured by many of the young makers/creators around the world who will use the Galileo and subsequent devices as the brains of their inventions.

For Moynagh, who is used to running 2,000-strong chip fabrication facilities in the US states of Arizona and Oregon, and in Ireland, the project has been an opportunity to put Ireland on the map.

Operating with a start-up mentality required a different discipline. The Quark team in Dublin and another team it worked with in California did not have the luxury of time or vast resources.

“We stole people and we stole ideas and we stole business processes and office space,” said Moynagh. “We used and abused this magnificent infrastructure that the Ireland site has developed over a quarter of a century.”

Moynagh added that the decision to pull out all the stops in terms of how high to aim is a reflection of the caliber of the Irish team.

“We decided if we aimed high and missed it, we would still get to a higher place than we could have before.”

Validation for the team’s hard work came earlier than the Maker Faire, when nearly a month ago Krzanich unveiled the first version of the Galileo board at an internal conference.

“He outlined the biggest things that Intel was working on and included our X1000 system on a chip. We thought all our birthdays and Christmases had come at once,” Moynagh said. “He also said that it was not enough, that we need to enable the developer community and go to market with a dev board.”

Galileo development board based on the Quark Q1000 chip

Intel’s Galileo development board based on the Quark Q1000 chip

Fiona Dunn from IDA Ireland’s ICT division said that after commercially and strategically assessing the project, it became clear it was of vital importance to Ireland in terms of staking a claim on a new growth area of technology.

Her colleague Donal Murphy added: “It truly puts Ireland at the top of the designer community and puts the country in a new category in the technology world.”

Mike Bell, a veteran of Apple who is now general manager of Intel’s New Devices Group in Silicon Valley, said the Irish team faced and overcame a challenge.

“The investment and the knowledge required to build these technologies is tremendous as we are working at a sub-atomic level,” Bell said.

“We have the smartest people on the planet working for us and there are few companies in the world that can build an end-to-end device involving chips and systems. None of this is easy and we have to predict the future three years in advance in order to do it.”

Bell added that Moynagh’s team had to redo the fundamental plumbing, understand the software, and deal with a lower-powered battery yet keep performance up – all at once and within a tiny time frame.

“Some people think that it’s an anomaly that this group was doing something different – but to be honest that’s actually the culture that founded Intel and it exists particularly when you rally people to a cause,” said Bell.

Last year, a similar group put together a smartphone in six months and shipped it to Kenya, he added. “We have the resources to move mountains and we decided where to go. The team in Ireland did a really good job.”

Start-up mentality

Bell said the work of the team in Ireland does signal a return to the traditional start-up mentality at Intel to achieve a faster, leaner way of doing things and responding to opportunities.

“We’re a big company, but inside there are many people who patch technologies together to make things and that’s where the next big evolution of technology is going to be,” he said. “When we announced we were making the Galileo at least 300 people inside Intel immediately said they do this stuff for fun.”

It became clear the market is moving into an environment where a faster turnaround time is required and that the company reacts, Bell said, and added that Intel’s plan is to build the best chip for each segment. Agility is important.

“We are in a world now where kids can send a balloon into the stratosphere and most digital watches have more power than the Apollo spacecraft. I want to see a rocket from a kid on Earth land on the moon. Galileo is not just a business product, it’s something we believe in,” said Bell.

The success of the project also resulted in work for Emutex, a 27-strong engineering firm in Limerick that specialises in embedded software development.

“Hopefully, it will lead to more business as we could work with industrial firms to integrate the Quark boards into industrial devices, communications and energy devices,” said John Twomey, managing director at Emutex.

Moynagh said that the words ‘Designed in Ireland’ is a salute rarely granted in the Intel world and that they will only feature on the first generation of boards. However, Trinity College Dublin and University College Cork – Moynagh and Murphy’s respective alma maters – will be among the first 12 universities in the world to receive the devices to boost computer science education.

“Intel is 100,000 people, US$1bn a week in revenue and US$1bn a month in profit – so whatever we are doing it is impressive and we will not compromise in huge markets, we are successful,” said Moynagh. “We are hard to compete with in cloud, we are hard to compete with in personal computers and we are in the middle of a battleground for mobile devices.”

Targeting a brand new ‘internet of things’ market space required agility, a new way of behaving and making the product in record time, he added.

“That required a new kind of behaviour, a start-up mindset and the realisation that this is the beginning of our attack on a brand new 50bn-device marketplace.”

A version of this article first appeared in the Sunday Times on 13 October

Tech revolution image, via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years