In February, Intel archrival AMD introduced a technology called HyperTransport to connect CPUs to other chips handling tasks such as networking or connections to the PCI data pathway. In a surprise move Tuesday, Apple announced it's one of the eight companies in charge of the newly formed HyperTransport Technology Consortium that will govern the technology and license it to companies building it into their products.
Meanwhile, Intel is preparing to lock in its competing standard that was announced in March and now known as 3GIO. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker is working to have an industry standards body govern 3GIO, spokeswoman Kea Grilley said. "We don't want it to be an Intel specification; we want it to be an industry specification," she said.
Sources familiar with the plan said the standardization likely would happen at PCI SIG, the special interest group that governs the prevailing method to plug devices into computers, called Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI). The move would be politically astute, sources said, because some of PCI's status as the prevailing technology could rub off on 3GIO and because computing companies already are comfortable with the well-established group.
Intel declined to comment on the issue, and PCI-SIG representatives didn't respond to requests for comment. But the group is holding a meeting Friday in San Jose, Calif., where sources expect the group to vote in favor of an Intel proposal. One source expects the PCI group to govern 3GIO, but separately from the PCI standard.
The competing standards, overlapping though not identical, raise the prospect of a "bus war"--a potentially industry-crippling indecision about what type of data pathway, or bus, will form the nervous system of computers. Such uncertainty hobbles component makers, who must decide whether to support one or another standard or both.
Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds says the PC industry sorely needs both technologies, and both are best-in-class for their prospective windows of availability.
Bus wars have bruised the PC industry before, as when IBM's MicroChannel Architecture (MCA) took on the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) in the 1980s, or when VL-Bus competed against PCI in the early 1990s.
HyperTransport and 3GIO are "incredibly overlapping," Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood said. "Either one could probably do all the tasks that both are setting out to do."
Industry warming to HyperTransport
HyperTransport, which will show up in networking hardware and servers as well as desktop computers, is gaining momentum. AMD on Tuesday announced the HyperTransport Technology Consortium and the eight companies that will lead the group.
Several of the consortium's members--AMD, Nvidia, Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, Transmeta and API NetWorks--already are HyperTransport fans. But new to the game are Apple and PMC-Sierra, a company that makes communications chips for networking gear.
A total of 45 companies have licensed the technology from AMD so far, said Gabriele Sartori, president of the HyperTransport Technology Consortium, but licensing it will be easier with the consortium in place. Those who want to use the technology may join the consortium for $5,000 a year, and those who also want to contribute to the technology development may join for $25,000 a year, he said. There are no royalties or licensing fees beyond this annual membership cost, he said.
Though the only computer makers to endorse HyperTransport thus far are Apple and Sun, Sartori said he expects more computer makers to ship products with the technology. "I do believe most of the (computer makers) have the specifications, and so they're going to use it," he said.
Among the 170 companies with which AMD has shared HyperTransport are Hewlett-Packard, Broadcom, LSI Logic, Acer Labs and Texas Instruments, according to a HyperTransport paper.
Intel: HyperTransport inferior
Intel's Grilley praised the move toward making HyperTransport a more open standard rather than a company's proprietary technology, Grilley said, but Intel believes HyperTransport will run out of steam too soon.
"HyperTransport is...a good five-year solution" for connecting chips within a computer, Grilley said. "We just think there needs to be a 10-year solution. What we want to do with the 3GIO is to go one step farther."
Both HyperTransport and 3GIO use a relatively small number of high-speed wires to carry data. 3GIO is explicitly designed as a way to connect external devices to a computer, whereas AMD currently is billing HyperTransport as a way to connect internal components. But communications chipmakers such as PMC-Sierra are working on using HyperTransport for connections that lead outside computing equipment, and Brookwood expects HyperTransport will evolve to accept add-in cards within a year, meaning it will start encroaching on the turf of PCI.
Intel will detail 3GIO plans, though not yet version 1.0, at the Intel Developer Forum beginning Aug. 27, Grilley said, and will announce business partners as well.
But Intel is lagging. It won't release its first crack at the 3GIO specification until this fall, while API NetWorks announced a chip design in April that would let computers use HyperTransport.
Other Intel rivals have lined up to support HyperTransport, with processor maker Transmeta licensing the design in May and Nvidia--a graphics chip designer making other PC chips despite Intel's chilly reception--following in June.
"Intel is coming along a little later in the game with a technology solution yet to be unveiled, vs. AMD and others who have in many cases designed and implemented silicon," Brookwood said. "Some of that is very close to being on the market."
But Brookwood said it's quite possible that Intel will prevail in computers, while the communications market embraces HyperTransport. "If Intel comes up with something that's very compelling, we could see a situation where desktop PCs go with 3GIO," Brookwood said. "But given the momentum in the communication (industry), it's hard to imagine how anything Intel could do could have any impact on that aspect."