Intel, AMD call truce on 'bus war'

The chip giants are supporting two standards that could lead to a war over your computer's nervous system. But now diplomacy is coming into play
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor on

Intel and AMD are moving to reassure users and manufacturers that their separate communications standards will work together, avoiding a potentially disastrous battle over the PC's nervous system.

The two standards, 3GIO and HyperTransport, have previously been seen as competing, largely because AMD and Intel are bitter rivals in the computer chip market. However, Intel and AMD officials are now making conciliatory gestures, and have advertised their intent to make the standards work together.

Crucially, AMD has agreed to support 3GIO by becoming a "key contributor" to the 3GIO Alliance, according to the companies. The PCI SIG, of which AMD is a member, voted earlier this month to approve the 3GIO standard.

Both HyperTransport and 3GIO are standards for the computer bus, determining the type of data pathway that links components such as chips and add-on cards together. A battle over bus standards can create serious difficulties for component manufacturers, who must choose which standard to support, and for consumers, who have to avoid buying components based on different standards.

For example the current standard, PCI, competed with VL-Bus in the early 1990s, while IBM's MicroChannel Architecture (MCA) for servers battled with Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) in the 1980s.

Intel used the opportunity of its Developer Forum in San Jose this week to talk up 3GIO, a next-generation standard it first proposed this spring, which the chip maker promises will revolutionise the way PCs are designed. Louis Burns, Intel vice president and general manager of its desktop platforms group, said on Thursday that the final version of the standard will be available to the industry by the middle of next year. It is not expected to be implemented until 2003.

By contrast, HyperTransport, which was initiated by AMD, is already being implemented, and the HyperTransport Consortium counts among its members Nvidia, Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, Transmeta, API NetWorks, Apple and PMC-Sierra. Dozens of companies have already licensed the standard, which is aimed at networking hardware and servers as well as desktop computers.

Given the relationship between Intel and AMD and the underlying bus standards themselves, there is a huge potential for conflict, according to industry analysts. HyperTransport and 3GIO are "incredibly overlapping," Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood said in an earlier interview. "Either one could probably do all the tasks that both are setting out to do."

The fact that HyperTransport is well on its way to becoming established adds to the potential problems. Intel told ZDNet earlier this month that the company sees HyperTransport running out of steam too soon, making it a good five-year standard but not a good ten-year standard.

But the companies appear ready to set aside their differences in an effort to avoid compatibility problems that could split the industry. Besides AMD's move to join the 3GIO group, Nvidia, part of the HyperTransport Consortium, also joined. Nvidia's rival ATI supports 3GIO.

AMD and Intel officials both told journalists on Thursday that they plan to develop the standards as complementary rather than conflicting. AMD emphasised Intel's standard would be better suited for some things, like approving hundreds or thousands of add-on cards for PC desktops.

3GIO has been billed as a way of connecting external devices to a PC, whereas AMD has promoted HyperTransport mainly for internal components, emphasising its complementarity to 3GIO. However, HyperTransport can also accept add-in cards.

As a further gesture of goodwill toward HyperTransport, Intel allowed a HyperTransport hospitality suite to be hosted at Intel Developer Forum this week. In addition, API Networks showed off HyperTransport products at the show.

CNET News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.

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