Via not serious contender to Intel, AMD

Taiwanese player has strengths to compete in niche areas but lacks the investment and product performance to truly take on the big boys, says analyst.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor

Via is making headway in some computing market segments but is still some way off from becoming a serious contender to the likes of AMD and Intel, according to an analyst.

Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview that both Intel and AMD will still be competitive in the year ahead despite some challenges, such as on the legal and regulatory front for Intel.

"Nothing is going to displace the x86 in traditional servers anytime soon and Intel definitely has a strong position with the release of the Nehalem architecture," he noted. "2010 may be a bit challenging for Intel due to the regulatory and legal issues, but they are still very competitive from a product standpoint. AMD will still be competitive.

Vendors such as Via, said McGregor, are aiming for other segments of the market such as communications--where players including MIPS and Power have traditionally been strong--or other specialized applications. In addition, Via has primarily targeted embedded applications--a good niche for the Taiwanese company.

Another market in which Via is making headway is mobile PCs due to the rising popularity of smaller form factor devices, he pointed out. "Via's products in this segment are competitive.

Intel Atom not meant for servers

Atom processors are "power-optimized" but Intel has no plans to offer them in the server market, according to an executive based in the region.
Sujan Kumran, regional marketing manager at Intel Asia-Pacific, told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview that current Atom products "do not have the feature set that we believe characterizes a robust computing environment for that of a server". Such features include memory RAS (reliability, availability and serviceability) and virtualization support.
"While we do not perform validation in a server environment of any of those categories of devices--desktop CPUs, notebook CPUs or Atom CPUs--that doesn't mean one is prohibited from or would technically be incapable to hold a server operating system on those devices," said Kumran. "That doesn't mean that [if] people don't use our desktop processors, mobile processors [for servers]…we will begin to see some OEMs and ODMs bring to market what they say are server platforms with Atom."
According to him, the next-generation Atom platform codenamed Pine Trail, will also not be targeted at servers. "We've optimized this implementation for nettops and netbooks focused on cost and power efficiency."

"The only thing Via has really lacked in the past was a significant design win that provides high volume," said the analyst. "It would seem that Via may finally be getting over that hurdle with design wins like the new Tongfong thin and light notebook. All Via really needs is momentum and continued investment in R&D in the PC and consumer electronics segment."

In the high-end server market, Via products are "not on par" with larger competitors in terms of performance, noted McGregor, and "will be limited to specific applications or segments" in the market.

"Via faces challenges in terms of capacity and engineering support, especially relative to Intel," he pointed out. "It took AMD many years to break into Dell for some of these very same reasons. Via is creative and has competitive products, especially for mobile devices, but they would need a significant investment to compete head-on with Intel."

Timothy Brown, Via's international marketing manager, said in an e-mail the deal to use the Nano processor in Dell servers was important as it served "as a first step into the hyperscale Web hosting server market". Following the announcement, Via received "a lot of inquiries from other customers", he said, adding that he could not provide further information on the potential business opportunities.

According to Brown, the Nano processor was built with planned properties that serve as "core building blocks" for a wide range of products. "An integrated hardware security encryption engine, low power draw, x86 architecture, and now 64-bit and virtualization support which are key for the Web hosting server market, make the Via Nano ideal for these kinds of applications," he added.

To AMD, the Dell-Via tie-up is validation of the U.S. chipmaker's own plan to "address the need among Web and cloud computing customers for energy-efficient, highly dense and economical servers", said its corporate vice president and APAC general manager Ben Williams.

"Those customers do not want to compromise such things as memory addressability and reliability," said Williams. "AMD's 4000 series processors will meet the demands of the rapidly growing cloud computing market in the first half of next year. Today, cloud and Web customers can take advantage of our energy-efficient 40-watt Quad-Core AMD Opteron processors that offer the same features and functionality of our highest-performing AMD Opteron processors, but in a much lower thermal band."

For the first quarter of 2009, IDC statistics showed Intel had a global market share of 77.3 percent, AMD 22.3 percent and Via, 0.4 percent.

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