IBM's chip future may woo Sun

IBM hints at the next stage for Power with a spate of 'discussions'. Will a chip deal with Sun be the endgame?

IBM moved the battle of the microprocessor vendors up a notch on Monday when it revealed that it was developing a new manufacturing method for its Power range that promised speeds of 4-5GHz — twice as fast as the processors' current top speed.

The new technology is believed to be a variation of the silicon-on-insulator (SOI) developments that IBM has been working on for some time.

The announcement of the new product was made at one of a series of IBM discussions at the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco, as the company seeks to increase interest in the Power architecture.

The new IBM process alters the way silicon behaves by placing a layer of insulator underneath a layer of silicon less than 500 atoms thick, Bernard Meyerson, chief technologist of IBM's technology group, told Reuters on Monday.

"You literally can squeeze silicon, and thereby give it properties to make it faster. The thing that is making it run faster is not just that it's smaller but because you're changing its basic physical properties," Meyerson said.

IBM intends to incorporate the technology into the next generation of Power processor, the Power6, which is due in 2007. The latest line, the Power5 and Power5+, run at speeds around 2.2GHz.

The IT industry is watching IBM's development of the Power line of processors with interest as the battle for supremacy in microprocessors in servers and desktops continues.

Last year, IBM lost a high-profile customer when Apple switched from the Power architecture to Intel. Now it is looking for a replacement to help it offset the massive costs of developing microprocessors.

One possible replacement is Sun which currently uses Intel processors in some computers but whose main architecture is the proprietary SPARC line of chips.

In January, IBM's chief architect Frank Soltis, who heads up the company's core iSeries and pSeries divisions, hinted that IBM might be pursuing the Sun business aggressively.

"Sun will run on one of these platforms — AMD, Itanium or Power," Soltis told journalists. "Really it is going to be Power or Itanium. It's just too expensive to develop these things now."

Speaking in Rochester, Minnesota, which is the headquarters of the group responsible for the IBM iSeries, Soltis insisted that his comments were "personal" and "not official IBM policy" but was outspoken about what he sees as the crucial questions facing Sun.

"The problem is the silicon," Soltis said. "the device stops working because the transistor is too small." According to Soltis, the need for speed in processing has forced chipmakers to make circuits too small to reliably process data. The resulting data leaks make the chip both unreliable and too hot, increasing the need for expensive cooling.

Soltis believes that the answer is architectural. "With Power it is all about bandwidth — it is not clock speed," he said.

And Soltis believes that IBM has done the right things, architecturally, to appeal to Sun. "Solaris running on Power can share all the same things," he said.


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