Intel, IBM to discuss new high-end chips at ISSCC

Intel and IBM will soon provide details of their latest high-end server processors, which may contain cutting-edge technologies that could ultimately be found in future PC and server chips.

Chip makers in recent years have been adding cores and on-board cache and incrementally cranking up clock speeds to improve performance. Intel's and IBM's new chips feature faster clock speeds and on-board cache, and are targeted at servers that require high uptime and reliability.

At the International Solid State Circuit Conference (ISSCC), which will be held in San Francisco Feb. 20-24, Intel will discuss its next-generation Itanium chip code-named Poulson, an eight-core processor that includes 50MB cache, according to an advance program announcement.

IBM will make a presentation about its zEnterprise 196 quad-core server chip, which runs at 5.2GHz and is already shipping with the company's zEnterprise mainframe systems. The chip, which was announced in September, has been characterized on the ISSCC agenda as having the “highest frequency in microprocessor history.” The chip uses 1.4 billion transistors and includes 30MB of cache.

The chips include some of the latest cutting-edge technologies and focus more on performance than power consumption, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

Intel's Itanium chips are designed for high-end servers that require high uptime and reliability. The Poulson chips could also be a vehicle for Intel to test out some of the latest technologies that the company could ultimately put in x86 servers and PC chips, McCarron said.

The Poulson chip will succeed the existing Itanium processors code-named Tukwila, which started shipping in February last year after numerous delays.

Like Poulson, Tukwila was a testbed for many of the advanced features found in Intel's high-end Xeon server processors, which are based on the x86 chipset. Intel put features such as error correction and RAS (reliability, availability and serviceability) from Tukwila into Xeon server chips code-named Nehalem-EX, which started shipping in March last year.

The bulk of Intel's business comes from x86 chips. Intel ships Itanium chips in small volumes — about 30,000 to 40,000 per quarter — mostly to fulfill contractual obligations to Hewlett-Packard, which uses the chips in its Integrity servers.

“[Itanium] is appealing to a pretty narrow set of consumers,” McCarron said. “They've been running with the current design for a while now. The refresh cycle for this class of parts is pretty slow.”

The Poulson chip includes a record 3.1 billion transistors and will be made using the 32-nanometer process, an improvement from the 65-nm process used to make Tukwila chips. The advanced manufacturing process allows Intel to put more transistors in the chip, which improves performance while making the chip more power-efficient by reducing leakage.

A third player aiming to gain a foothold in the high-end chip market is the Chinese government's Chinese Academy of Sciences, which will be presenting its next-generation Godson-3B eight-core processor. The chip, based on the MIPS architecture, delivers a peak performance of 128 gigaflops while drawing just 40 watts of power. The chip was first discussed at the Hot Chips show in Stanford, California, in August.

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