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Chipset sleeper RCC eyes going public

Reliance Computing Company, which specializes in an important yet arcane component for Intel-based computers, is starting to think big thoughts.

LAS VEGAS--Reliance Computing Company, a little-known outfit that specializes in an important yet arcane component for Intel-based computers, is thinking big.

Last month, RCC bested giant Intel in winning a place for supporting chips in new Pentium III server computers from the likes of Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Compaq Computer and Dell Computer. The outcome was a setback for Intel's push to sell manufacturers more parts of a PC's innards.

Now the company is trying to convert that victory into the foundation for an initial public offering in the spring of 2000, Kimball Brown, vice president of business development, said in an interview at the Comdex trade show here.

RCC, a 95-employee company based in Santa Clara, Calif., designs chipsets, the chips that connect a computer's main processing unit (CPU) to everything else on a computer, including memory, graphics systems or the slots used to plug in network cards. The company's first product debuted in 1997, and it's now on its Comdex: Closing the millennium third-generation ServerSet III LE chip, said David Pulling, vice president of sales and marketing.

Pulling declined to share revenue figures for the privately owned company but said the company is profitable.

Chipsets are a critical part of computers, and Intel is one of the dominant companies that makes them. Though the high-tech giant insists its chief business is selling CPUs, also selling chipsets allows the company to capture a larger fraction of the revenues generated by a server sale. But the market seems to be growing more competitive.

Intel hasn't executed some of its more recent chipset plans well. There were two delays of its 820 product, intended to be the first to enable use of the new Rambus memory technology. The holdups, along with other aspects of the 820's design, have allowed Via Technologies to increase its market share.

The Profusion chipset, which enables use of servers with eight Pentium III Xeon chips, also took a long time to produce, and analysts are skeptical about the market's response.

And then there's the fact that the big computer makers chose RCC for their latest servers. Intel had offered the 840 chipset for modest servers and powerful workstations, but so far it has been popular only in workstations.

"We missed a design cycle," said Paul Otellini, general manger of the Intel Architecture Business Group. "We got kind of clogged up on getting the 'eight-ways' out," he added, referring to the Profusion chipset.

Intel will entice companies back again with higher-performance chipsets to come, Otellini said.

Some manufacturers don't quite share Intel's view. HP selected the RCC chipset because it was the best chip available at the time, company executives say.

Intel's 840 chipset is limited by its use of the Rambus memory technology. Rambus memory has higher latency--in other words, a slower response time--and can't reach the capacities servers need, said Chris Bennett, a marketing manager for HP's NetServer line. "Those are the two great no-nos," he said.

RCC's Pulling said that while the company's chipsets compete with Intel's products, RCC has a good relationship with its rival. "I think we're a real asset to Intel. We've indirectly helped to sell a lot of high-end CPUs into the marketplace," he said.

RCC currently provides chipsets for general-purpose servers, but likely will come out with products for more specialized servers known as server appliances, Pulling said.

Brown noted that general-purpose servers dominate the market, but "in three or four years, it could be the reverse."

RCC also might work on a chipset that would allow use of Intel's high-end Xeon chips and the new AGP 4X slot for graphics cards, Brown said. Other new technologies on RCC's horizon are support for the upcoming PCI-X input/output standard and built-in support for gigabit Ethernet networking.

Regardless of the possibilities, RCC will strike where it sees high-volume markets. Thus the company will let Intel worry about getting the eight-processor market under way. "We think two- and four-ways are the bulk of the systems" in the market right now, Brown said.

NEC manufactures RCC's chips, mostly in Japan, Pulling said.