Transmeta to help AMD push into servers

Advanced Micro Devices plans to take on Intel in the server market, enlisting one of its own competitors to help out

Under a complex deal yet to be announced, sources say AMD is sending to software developers computers that run on competitor Transmeta's Crusoe processor and contain a special version of Transmeta's "code-morphing" software. The computers are designed to run a program that simulates AMD's upcoming server chip, called Sledgehammer, the sources said.

In turn, Transmeta has obtained a licence that will allow it to make chips that rely in part on the Sledgehammer design.

The Sledgehammer simulator is crucial to AMD's plans to break into the lucrative server market. With a software simulation of the chip, developers can tweak their programs so they can release products when Sledgehammer emerges commercially in the first half of 2002. AMD will also come out with a version for desktop computers called ClawHammer, the company has said.

Sledgehammer is one of AMD's most ambitious projects to date. The chip will process data in 64-bit chunks, rather than in 32 bits like AMD's Athlon processor. Sledgehammer also will allow computers to manage more memory than current PCs and servers. The chip will compete against the long-awaited Itanium processor from Intel.

The licensing pact also is likely to be seen as a significant endorsement of Transmeta's code-morphing software. Code-morphing software translates instructions written for Intel or AMD-based computers into Very Long Instruction Word (VLIW) commands that can be understood by Transmeta's Crusoe chip and then back again.

Transmeta has maintained that the translation process eliminates some of the burdens involved in chip design and causes only a minimal performance hit. Critics, however, have said that it is merely a form of emulation, a cross-computer form of translation that has never been satisfactory.

By adopting the software for its development systems, AMD is essentially endorsing the technology. In fact, the company sent developers Sledgehammer simulators based on its own chips last autumn, but, according to sources, they didn't work very well.

"[AMD's Sledgehammer] simulator is quite slow. It runs at speeds like PCs 15 years ago," said a source with a software company, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Simulating a chip is a very expensive operation," the developer continued. "But Transmeta can take any x86 chip -- and Sledgehammer is basically an x86 chip on steroids -- and simulate it in hardware."

Transmeta will also be able to make notebook chips that are compatible with software tailored to Sledgehammer.

AMD and Transmeta executives declined to comment.

Microsoft, Red Hat and Linux seller SuSE have all kicked off pilot programs to examine whether to write code for Sledgehammer.

Representatives from Microsoft, which said earlier this year that it was evaluating Sledgehammer, said the company's position on Sledgehammer had not changed. Microsoft is looking at Sledgehammer but has not committed to writing software for the chip.

Any deal involving Transmeta and AMD would be "complete news to me," said Michael Stephenson, lead product manager for Windows enterprise servers at Microsoft. "We still have nothing to announce" regarding Sledgehammer.

See Chips Central for daily hardware news, including interactive roadmaps for AMD, Intel and Transmeta.

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