Better bred CPUs

As users wake up to the fact that megahertz aren’t everything, microprocessor companies are diversifying their ranges to suit new form factos and usage models. Channel Middle East takes a closer look at the all-new CPUs.

  • E-Mail
By  Mark Sutton Published  June 1, 2003

Meet the new breed|~||~||~|The past few months have seen major product releases from several of the largest CPU companies in the world, with more on the way. But the market has moved on from the days when clock speed was everything and Intel and AMD raced each other to pass the next milestone.

The latest generations of processors and architectures are now designed with more in mind than just muscle. From high performance server processors to intelligent processors for ultra-small form factors, developers are creating chips for specific tasks and specific users, with the smaller companies even managing to score some notbale wins over the market leaders. Channel Middle East examines what the four main PC processor vendors—AMD, Intel, Transmeta and VIA—are offering.

||**||AMD|~||~||~|AMD is looking to make its mark outside of the PC segment, with its Opteron processor. While the number two in the chip market has long maintained a presence with its desktop processors, and has also had some success with its Athlon MP CPUs for PC servers, the company now has its sights set on the enterprise market for its Opteron 64-bit processor.

The vendor believes that Opteron will prove to be a superior offering to both Intel’s Itanium and to RISC processors. Opteron has full compatibility will existing x86 architectures, meaning it can run 32-bit applications—meaning businesses can transition their applications as and when they want to. It also has integrated memory controllers to boost internal processing speeds, support for Hyper Transport, to increase I/O bandwidth and 256TB of memory address space, which enhances performance for applications that use large sets of data. It can also scale from 1-way to 8-way processing, providing the best price/performance characteristics around, according to AMD.

To help resellers to push Opteron, the vendor is looking to expand its presence in the Middle East considerably. A local office is planned in Dubai, which will fulfil sales, technical support and promotional roles.

Pierre Brunswick, regional sales manager for EEMEA, explained that the company would focus initially on taking customers, both in small to medium and enterprise-level organisations, to transition them to 64-bit computing. While the vendor has not had an enterprise product before, he believes that headway is being made in enterprises as they, and the reseller partners, become aware of the benefits of AMD.

“We are trying to talk to professional [sales] people, to be sure they have the full picture to talk to customers. Our job is to do education and training, we want to be sure that people have the right tools to hand to make the right decision,” he said.

AMD is particularly looking to partner with local software houses that need to transition their customer’s applications to 64-bit.
“We are actively looking, to help these people with the transition—it is not so difficult, DB2 took two days [to transition]—but we can help a lot to give a smooth and easy migration to 64-bit,” he said.
With the Athlon MP already gaining a presence, particularly in the education sector, and a number of test sites for Opteron, AMD is confident it can take a much greater market share in 64-bit
“Previously we thought we could achieve 25% market share in the Middle East, but now we are looking for 30%. However, as we are the only player in the 64-bit Windows market we should be targeting 100% market share [for Opteron],” said Brunswick.

||**||Intel|~||~||~|While Intel may not have the 64-bit market all to itself anymore, it is not resting on its laurels. The end of June sees the release of the next generation of Itanium 2 processors, codenamed Madison. With Madison Intel aims to address a number of issues with its 64-bit range, and to finally push its CPUs to high end enterprise applications.

One of the major selling points for Madison is that is it socket compatible with the first generation of Itanium 2, meaning that customers who wish to upgrade can simply swap out processors rather than requiring a complete hardware upgrade, not the case with the transition from Itanium to Itanium 2. Madison will still be called Itanium 2, explained Ferhad Patel, strategic relations manager, Intel MENA, but it will provide major improvements.

“What we have done is make some improvements,” he said. “We have increased the frequency, increased the amount of cache and at the same time we have moved from 0.18 micron to 0.13 micron, so we can add more transistors and get better performance.”

As a maturing technology, Itanium is gaining ground in the enterprise space, Patel said, including inclusion in government tenders across the region, to compete with RISC in 64-bit. The chip is also making its mark on high performance benchmarks.

“If you look at the TPCs, previously we were always up there for transactions per second, for price/performance we were always number one, but if it came to single box scale up type of environment, we weren’t in the top ten,” he said. “We have now reached number one with HP’s Superdome running Madison, we are going more and more into the high-end space.”

With support from a number of software vendors Intel now believes that Itanium 2 can be a play for all manner of enterprise deployments. A low power consumption version of Madison, called Deerfield will be released later in the year for blade servers and workstations. With its Xeon processors still servicing the 32-bit market, and an abstraction layer that will enable 32-bit applications to run on Itanium 2 being made available in the year, the company is confident it maintain its dominant position.

The other big area for Intel at the moment is mobility. While Intel is producing CPUs for handheld and embedded devices, using the IXA and ICPA architectures, which it expects to make up an increasing proportion of its business, it is still very much focused on the IA architecture for PCs and notebooks.

Systems based on its Centrino mobility platform are starting to ship now from major vendors, and the company is diversifying its product lines to fit an increasingly more diverse view of the way mobile computing works. However, this is causing a change from promoting processors purely on clock speed—a 1.4GHz Pentium M actually outperforms a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 M—but consumers are starting to understand the differences in computing models.

“We have to differentiate between usage models,” explained Ferruh Gurtas, business development manager of Intel MENA. “One is transportability—devices that are mostly desktop replacements, you don’t actually carry them. For those systems the Pentium 4 and Pentium 4M are in the market, and [CPU] frequency is still important for those designs.

“When it comes to real mobility, if you carry your system with you all the time, you care about battery life, you care about the lightness of the system—frequency doesn’t mean performance all the time,” he said.

It is the segment that is addressed by the Centrino platform, which consists of the Pentium M processor, chipset and 802.11b connectivity. The processor is currently available in speeds up to 1.6GHz, and will reach 1.9GHz by early next year Gurtas said. In Q3, Intel will also introduce the next generation of Pentium M, which will move down from 0.13 micron to 0.09 micron die size, allowing Intel to push the chip even further.

“Frequency will increase as we go on, and we will also be moving down to 0.09 micron, this will make sure that as we are increasing speed, the power consumption remains the same, or even goes down,” Gurtas said.

||**||Transmeta|~||~||~|When Transmeta launched its Crusoe family of processors three years ago, there was much fanfare made over the processor and its low power consumption features, but then the company seemed to go very quiet. While the Crusoe 5800 series proved popular with Japanese manufacturers making true thin and light notebooks, the form factor was not as popular in the US and Europe, and Transmeta appeared to be something of an also-ran in the processor market. But when HP selected the 5800 as the processor for its Compaq TC1000 Tablet PC in June last year, Transmeta was pushed back into the limelight.

Chris Russell, European operations manager for Transmeta commented: “Our traditional markets one or two years ago were very small notebooks, selling mainly in Japan and some in the US, but in Europe, people just didn’t feel the need to go for ultra thin and light,” he said.

“At Comdex five or six years ago, there were slates and things, that never took off. This time around, it seems like the world is ready for some of these new form factors. Tablet has certainly proved that,” he added.

Transmeta has two main markets for the 5800 series, Russell said, for devices such as web pads and smart displays, and for the tablet form factor. The company has invested in developing processors for embedded devices, and in May was selected by Microsoft as a design partner for smart displays using Windows CE .NET.

The company was one of the first to promote a product based on its lower power consumption characteristics, and this is still very much its focus. It is now preparing for the roll out of its next generation of processors, the TM8000, also known as Astro, a chip that some have dubbed the ‘Centrino killer’.

Russell said that while it took five years for Transmeta to develop the Crusoe, it has now been able to take the lessons it learnt about the software layer involved in that processor, and combine it with other technologies to create the TM8000.

“Basically what we have done is taken power management and thermal management to the next level,” Russell said. “We have increased the performance significantly over the current product, it uses things like Hyper Transport, we have got AGP directly on the processor and we are supporting up to 400MHz DDR memory. It is a very high performance product.”

The target market will be high performance notebooks, blade servers and tablet PCs, any high performance device where long battery life and low thermal output are key factors.

Despite the competition from Centrino, Russell said that Transmeta is not worried about Intel. “We see some of the stuff that Intel is doing is actually pretty positive. Until Centrino, they have never focused on low power and long battery life, and with a market mover like Intel educating people, we are hoping it will create a larger market for these types of devices.

“If we didn’t have Astro, then that it would be a different ball game, but we have been working on it for over two years now, knowing that the market was eventually going to figure out these things—I guess a rising tide raises our boat,” Russell said.

||**||Via|~||~||~|For Taiwan-based VIA, the way ahead for CPUs is clear. The company has been promoting its VIA C3 as a low-cost desktop processor for several years, but like its competitors, it is increasingly involved in the embedded sector. Timothy Handley, international marketing specialist for VIA explained: “We are still selling boxed processors, as long as there is demand we will sell them, but most of our focus now is on the embedded product, either on our own boards or on customer boards. Our processor business has grown tremendously in the embedded sector,” he said.

VIA has a number of processor offerings for the embedded segment, including the C3 and the Eden ESP series of fanless processors, but the company is involved in all the surrounding elements of chipsets, motherboards, networking and so on that make up the infrastructure. Its embedded processors are being used in a wide range of applications, from set-top boxes to in-car systems, but the area where the company is enjoying greatest success is with its mini-ITX platform, for small form factors for home entertainment. The company has over fifteen design wins from US digital media companies alone based on the EPIA mini-ITX board, with more in Europe, as companies look at creating PCs for the living room.

In January VIA launched the latest edition of its C3, based on the new Nehemiah core. The new core includes features to handle enhanced digital media performance and ultra low power, low heat and low noise output, as well as security features, all of which are aimed at making small, secure systems for digital entertainment. The processor uses just 10 watts of power for the 1GHz version, with speeds of up to 1.4GHz on the roadmap for this year.

VIA sees a lot of potential for the channel in these new devices. To help systems integrators to make inroads into this sector, the company has set up a number of online communities for support. “All these [design win] systems are made by smaller systems integrators,” Handley said. “We have actually introduced a new form factor—there are new types of chassis, news types of power supply, low profile RAM, you need to get notebook hard drives into the channel where they were previously only available to OEMs. We have had to create a support community for these guys.”

Among the design wins are PCs like Hush Technologies Silent Mini-ITX PC, a totally fanless, silent PC which is about the same size as a hi-fi separate. This new breed of PC is ready to start selling in volumes, Handley believes.

“We are in that little gap at the moment—we have got enthusiasts and we have got the design wins, but we haven’t entered the mainstream sales yet. A lot of these designs were planned for launch at Computex, and then will start selling for the Christmas season. As far as we are concerned, we are very much on track,” he said. ||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code