For chipmakers, the race for processing speed may be back on. Semiconductor archrivals Intel (INTC) and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) eased up on the gas pedal recently, amid concerns that too speedy a chip interfered with performance and threw off too much heat. Suddenly, it's IBM (IBM) that feels a need for speed.
Big Blue dropped a bombshell on the industry on Feb. 7 with an announcement at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco that the new Power 6 processor, when released in mid-2007, will become the reigning speed champ, at top clock speeds of 4 gigahertz to 5 GHz. That's about double the performance of anything now on the market.
Even better, says IBM's Mark Papermaster, vice-president for microprocessor and systems technology development, the new chip will be as cool-running as competitive offerings from Sun Microsystems (SUNW) and Intel, the world's largest computer-chip maker.
"REOPEN A DOOR." The IBM announcement is a departure from prevailing thinking among chip veterans that clock speed, or the speed at which computers perform basic operations, will become irrelevant as designers instead squeeze multiple processors onto one chip. The entire industry recently had oriented itself around the idea that while multiple-core processors have a far lower clock speed, they can do work faster overall by dividing up tasks among the cores. "These [IBM] chips reopen a door that a lot of people thought was shutting," says analyst Richard Doherty at Envisioneering Group, a consultancy in Seaford, N.Y.
The news is even more surprising because top IBM executives appeared over the past two years to have thrown away the idea of ever-increasing chip speeds. Big Blue was the first to introduce mainstream dual-core chips to market, months ahead of Intel and AMD. But a team of top engineers and manufacturing execs, after much debate and disagreement at an ultrasecret meeting three years ago, decided to proceed with plans to boost Power's speed. "There was plenty of debate," says IBM's Papermaster. "The question even within our own teams was 'Is this race over?' But they basically locked themselves away and came up with this approach."
The chip could carry competitive advantages. Businesses that use it wouldn't have to rewrite software applications to see immediate performance improvements. Such gains in multiple-core chips are at their height only when software is rewritten to take advantage of multiple threads and parallel processing.
WORTH THE EFFORT? Papermaster says designers took pains to increase performance without running up power consumption -- a feature considered essential in data centers and some high-end computing situations.
Even so, it's not clear the market will be big enough to justify IBM's expense and effort. The overall market for processors such as Power, which are based on a design philosophy called reduced instruction-set computer (RISC), declined last year -- though IBM gained market share against Sun. And while some companies will welcome the raw performance gains, buyers of big-iron servers also look for reliability and stability, sometimes taking years to make decisions on new chips that haven't been thoroughly vetted.
And after years of false starts, Intel's Itanium platform appears to be gaining traction as a replacement for RISC-based systems, though it seems to be stealing share mainly from Sun. Intel also is moving toward a common architecture for all its mainstream server and PC chips, a move that will give it a cost advantage IBM won't have.
GAME MARKET. Apple (AAPL), which had been buying IBM Power chips, this year began switching to Intel-based systems (see BW Online, 1/9/06, "Just What Apple Needs: Intel"). "They have an interesting challenge in that really the only place they have for Power is the [high-end] server space," Intel spokesman Scott McLaughlin says of IBM. AMD execs had no immediate comment.
IBM execs say they can use the same design improvements in other Power implementations, including in chips they sell to game-console makers Microsoft (MSFT) and Nintendo. Big Blue on Feb. 6 also announced that Freescale Semiconductor (FSL), the Motorola (MOT) spin-off that makes wireless and automotive chips, has joined Power.org. This group of companies such as chipmakers and software developers, along with IBM, is attempting to spur adoption of Power chips in a variety of platforms.
Silicon Valley startup P.A. Semi, for instance, hopes to begin selling Power chips in the next few years for embedded applications. Execs at P.A. Semi also have said their chips, if scaled, would outperform Intel's chips in terms of performance and power conservation.
IT'S NOT ALL NUMBERS. IBM's chip division also recently announced that it's sampling a new chip to potential customers that someday could wirelessly and quickly zip high-definition content about 30 feet away without a loss of signal. That's on top of Cell processors being used in Sony's (SNE) PlayStation 3, due out later this year, as well as other consumer-electronic devices.
Though IBM sells just a fraction of the chips that its competitors do, the chip announcements show that it's intent on maintaining what it sees as a leadership role in the development process. What it lacks in size, IBM may make up for innovation -- a big plus in any race.