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

PA Semi Powers up

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Cooler than cool

The folks at PA Semi don't think the mainstream processor makers have gone far enough. They have licensed IBM's Power design and claim to have created a chip that is 3- to 9-times more efficient than even Intel's upcoming products.

With such low power consumption, PA Semi hopes to get its products in high-end printers/copiers, switches, security appliances, storage boxes, servers and digital entertainment systems.

For the geeks out there, PA Semi explains its chip architecture as follows

The PWRficient family of platform processors is derived from a common set of fundamental architectural elements. A coherent, ordered crossbar called CONEXIUM interconnects multiple Power cores, L2 caches, memory controllers, and the ENVOI I/O subsystem. ENVOI combines a set of configurable serdes lanes with a set of protocol controllers for such I/O standards as PCI Express, Gigabit Ethernet, and 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

These controllers share a bridge to CONEXIUM, as well as a set of centralized DMA channels, offload engines, and a coherent I/O cache. The architecture supports a variety of offload engines, including support for TCP/IP, iSCSI, cryptography (IPSec and SSL), and RAID. This layered, scalable architecture results in versatile single-chip solutions that can be quickly developed by combining the appropriate number of Power cores, memory controllers, and L2 caches with a suitable number of serdes lanes and protocol controllers.

P.A. Semi also employs a unique scalable-socket plan, which provides several options for performance upgrades or cost reductions with little or no design effort. P. A. Semi defines a 'socket' (package, pinout, and power envelope) by the number of memory controllers (up to four), the number of serdes I/O lanes (up to 32), and the supported system peripherals. Each socket supports several performance levels by varying the number of cores (up to eight on a chip) and the size of the L2 cache (up to 8MB). Within a socket definition, processors are tailored to different applications by adjusting the number and type of the high-speed I/O protocols (for example PCI Express, 10 Gigabit Ethernet, 1 Gigabit Ethernet, SATA/SAS, RapidIO, and Fibre Channel). Initial socket definitions include the 'E' socket (entry), 'M' socket (midrange), and 'P' socket (performance). Customers can design to a specific socket, instead of a specific processor, to enable easy migration to compatible processors.

There's more detailed information on the chip available here, and we'll be covering the first official unveiling of the processor family tomorrow at the Fall Processor Forum in San Jose.

Chip giants don't fold easy

There's little doubt that PA Semi is the most interesting chip start-up to come along in quite some time - probably since Transmeta. Its performance per watt figures blow away anything the competition has revealed to date, and it appears that the Power-based products could be a huge hit in the server and storage markets, in particular.

The problem here is that PA Semi's product doesn't arrive until 2007, and it's almost impossible to say what Intel, AMD, IBM and Sun will be selling at that time. All of the companies have talked up impressive multicore designs, and they enjoy massive existing customer bases. Remember that Transmeta too had compelling technology but could not overcome the might of Intel. Chip start-ups need flawless execution and gear that is not just better but rather phenomenally better than standard products.

In addition, PA Semi has picked the Power architecture, which seems like a limiting play. It will piggyback on IBM's huge Linux on Power efforts and benefit from this investment and the strength of Power's design. Linux customers, however, have proven time and again that they're most comfortable with x86 chips. Take, for example, IBM's recent decision to cull a Linux-only Power server line and open all boxes back up to AIX.

What PA Semi has on its side is a team with proven credentials and a truly unique design. Industry watchers will keep a close eye on this start-up, looking to see where its chips pop up first. If a couple of server wins close, expect the big boys to get very nervous. ®

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