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Dell workstations to include Rambus memory

Dell Computer will deliver a new line of workstations this fall using high-speed Rambus memory, a major endorsement for the beleaguered memory company.

NEW YORK--Dell Computer will deliver a new line of workstations this fall using high-speed Rambus memory, a major endorsement for the beleaguered memory company.

Dell declined to say CNET's PC Expo coverage what amount of performance improvement the new memory architecture would give the machines. However, Peter Karnazes, general manager of Dell's workstation division, said at PC Expo here that the system will use two Rambus channels, meaning that the CPU will be exchanging data with main memory at a peak speed of 3.2 gigabytes per second.

That speed is important as memory systems struggle to keep pace with ever-faster chips. A processor today can gobble up information at the rate of 4 gigabytes per second, said Pete Dolan, a marketing manager for the workstations.

Despite offering an opportunity for better memory performance, Rambus has had a rocky time recently convincing companies to jump to its technology as fast as it and its staunch ally Intel would like.

Memory manufacturers, who have collectively lost hundreds of millions in the past few years, have complained loudly about the costs associated with making Rambus memory. Not only do these companies have to pay royalties to Rambus, the testing, packaging, and wafer costs associated with Rambus memory are higher than those associated with common SDRAM memory. Similarly, PC makers have griped about conversion and the added costs, especially with cheap SDRAM in plentiful supplies.

So far, the most avid Rambus customers appear to be the game console makers like Sony, which will put it in its PlayStation II.

Dell is traditionally a company closely aligned with Intel's chip plans, and the Rambus adoption is right on Intel's schedule. Intel's Camino and Carmel chipsets, which enable the use of Rambus memory, are due out in the fall, according to sources. Earlier, Camino was slated for June.

Dell is expected to buy fully two thirds of the Rambus memory chip supply available in the last quarter of 1999 and the first quarter of 2000, according to Warburg Dillon Read financial analyst Seth Dickson.

Dell declined to say which chipset it will use in the new workstations, but did say that it's ready to roll with the product as soon as it can get the chipsets from its supplier.

Camino and Carmel, either of which Dell could use, will have the further advantage of containing support for AGP 4x--the Accelerated Graphics Port. AGP is Intel's latest solution for the problem of piping enough data to the high-end video cards used on workstations.

In addition, the workstations will use wider 64-bit PCI slots and the newest SCSI adapters, meaning that the machine will have faster communications with devices such as hard disks and network cards, Karnazes said.

Rambus memory works by transferring data at higher speeds over a shorter and narrower bus, a data pathway consisting of parallel wires etched onto a circuit board. Rambus chips can run faster because it's easier to keep bursts of information synchronized across the wires.

Other memory technologies, such as double data rate (DDR) SDRAM, however, extend the current non-Rambus technology farther out into the future.

The new Dell workstations will ship with Linux eventually; Dell has been selling workstations with Red Hat's Linux for several weeks. However, support for other versions of Linux are coming so Dell can expand to more geographies such as the Asia-Pacific region, Karnazes said. That's an indicator that Dell could be close to a deal with TurboLinux, which is strong in Japan.

Karnazes said the current Linux workstations Dell is selling are higher-end 410 and 610 machines for the most part--machines with higher profit margins. The big customers are government labs and educational organizations, he said, though oil company Amerada Hess bought 30 Dell workstations to use in a number-crunching cluster configuration.

Dell is "still investigating how proactive we should be" in spurring Linux development, Karnazes said, though Dell did encourage software vendors to make sure there were drivers for the graphics cards in the Dell machines. Dell is a hardware company, Dolan emphasized.

Linux workstation sales still are a small fraction of the Windows sales, though, he said.

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