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Compaq chips away with ICE

Compaq looks to compete on with workstation market leaders by leveraging cutting-edge parallel processing graphics technology.

Compaq (CPQ) has only recently entered the fledging Intel-based workstation market but is already looking to compete head on with market leaders such as Silicon Graphics by leveraging cutting-edge parallel processing graphics technology from Integrated Computing Engines, or ICE.

The workstations, due next year, will be aimed at professionals in the film postproduction, animation, and CAD markets in 2D imaging and 3D photorealistic animation. These workstations would compete with Silicon Graphics workstations, which currently boast some of the most advanced graphics technology in the workstation market.

"Our goal with ICE is to offer Cray [supercomputer]-like performance," said David Parsons, director of workstation marketing for Compaq. Parsons added Compaq workstations would also be capable of high-performance processing of video streams.

Earlier this year, Compaq and ICE entered a "strategic partnership" to collaborate on high-performance workstation graphics, said Jonas Lee, general manager of ICE.

ICE has developed a product called GreenICE, which consists of a hardware and software component. The hardware component is a floating point engine, which comes as a PCI card, according to Lee. PCI, the peripheral component interconnect, is a high-speed data transfer technology used on almost all personal computers today. The software component consists of software libraries (programming routines) and algorithms.

One the most compelling features of the ICE technology is the ability to string thousands of processors together, known as "massively parallel processing," which can do calculations much faster than traditional graphics processors because it has many processors working simultaneously. This technology was licensed from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and allows for the use of up to 64,000 of these ICE processors.

The current GreenICE card uses 16 processors, which is about as many as can fit on the card inside a desktop PC. It uses DSP/RISC processors from Analog Devices. The processors execute advanced graphics software libraries developed by ICE to render the high-performance 2D and 3D graphics, explained Lee. ICE claims that the rendering engine can perform over 2 billion floating point operations per second.

GreenICE is already supported on the Mac OS, and Windows NT support for applications like Adobe Photoshop is expected to be available in February, according to ICE. Pricing for the card is expected to be under $20,000.

"ICE is more than a 3D processor; this is a media processor," Parsons said. "Our goal when we entered the workstation market wasn't just to participate. Our goal was to lead. When people quantify the cost of ownership relative to RISC/Unix products, it will be more difficult to justify buying RISC/Unix."