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DEC veterans prepare chip challenge for Intel, AMD, IBM and Sun

PA Semi Powers up

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If you were contemplating starting an IT company, deciding to go up against the likes of Intel, AMD, IBM, Sun Microsystems, Toshiba, Sony and TI with a new processor probably wouldn't seem like the smartest or most feasible idea. In fact, you'd likely characterize the idea as ludicrous with a dash of hopeless. That is unless you had assembled a ton of cash and an army of very talented and successful chip design mercenaries.

PA Semi is this start-up hoping to turn a concept many might see as hopeless into gold. It has recruited top engineers that worked on processors such as DEC/Compaq/HP's Alpha chip, AMD's Opteron, Sun Microsystems' UltraSPARC and even the lowly Itanium monster from Intel. These brains have come up with their own take on IBM's Power processor design and developed a dual-core chip that will run at 2GHz while consuming between just 5-13 watts on a typical software load. Such performance per watt figures would let the PA Semi PWRficient chips run in everything from embedded devices to supercomputers.

"With this company, we are really driving a breakthrough in performance per watt," said PA Semi's CEO Dan Dobberpuhl in an interview. "I think we will be way ahead of everyone."

Dobberpuhl has earned the right to talk big. He's a legend in the IT and chip industry in particular after leading much of the work with the Alpha processor. As CEO of PA Semi, he has managed to secure millions in venture capital - enough cash in fact to hire close to 130 engineers and around 150 total employees. Some of the class names on PA Semi's staff include Mister Tanglewood Peter Bannon, ex-AMD crazy man Wayne "I celebrate Michael Bolton's entire catalogue" Meretsky, Jim "Hyper" Keller and just about every other former DEC chip engineer not currently at HP, Intel, Sun or IBM.

This team hopes to capitalize on the move toward green computing where systems run fast while consuming less power than in the past. PA Semi's first processor - the PA6T-1682M - will sample in the third quarter of 2006 as a 2GHz, dual-core product with two DDR2 memory controllers, 2MB of L2 cache, support for eight PCI Express controllers, two 10 Gigabit Ethernet XAUI controllers, and four Gigabit Ethernet SGMII controllers sharing 24 serdes lanes. The product will ship widely in 2007 and be followed by a single-core chip in early 2007 and a four-core chip in late 2007. PA Semi also has plans for an eight-core processor in 2008.

It's not easy being green

The notion of green computing got its first mainstream attention thanks to the efforts of Los Alamos Labs whiz Wu-chun Feng and blade server pioneer Chris Hipp. These two individuals pushed the use of the Transmeta processor in server blades back in 2002.

At the time, most processor makers scoffed at the idea of using such low-performing chips in clusters even though the products improved system up-time and delivered adequate horsepower for many applications. Then, however, attitudes began to change as the likes of Sun and IBM revealed plans for multicore chips that made use of slower than usual cores. Processor makers had realized that they could no longer continue to up GHz at historic levels because of heat issues and a disconnect between processor and memory performance.

Eventually, AMD rolled out new 64-bit processor designs that proved far more energy efficient than competing chips from Intel, forcing Intel too to change its play and adopt performance per watt marketing. Intel cancelled plans for a 4.0GHz Pentium chip and reworked its server processor designs to make better use of dual and multicore technology. While Intel trails rivals on the green computing front, it has promised to deliver server and desktop products in 2006 that best the competition's performance per watt figures. We'll see.

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