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IBM breeds PC chip from server DNA

Big Blue is designing its new PowerPC chip using technology from its Power4 processor for servers--which should lead to the birth of a formidably brawny desktop chip.

IBM is brewing a new, more formidable PowerPC chip for desktop computers.

Big Blue plans to design the new desktop PowerPC chip using technology from its Power4 processor for servers. Though the server chip has a different name and a different design, Power4 is essentially a PowerPC processor on steroids. The two chip families are grounded in the same architectural concepts, but the Power4 contains enhancements not seen in the PowerPC family.

The new chip, which Big Blue will unveil at this fall's Microprocessor Forum, is designed to deliver higher clock speeds and 64-bit processing to desktop computers and also to entry-level servers. Moving to 64-bit processing from the current 32-bit processing should allow computers to use more memory and should provide a performance boost with data-intensive applications such as games and databases.

Network equipment and other communications gear is the most likely destination for the new PowerPC, as the bulk of existing PowerPCs are used there. However, IBM is also wooing Apple Computer, sources familiar with the chip said. The company is in a constant tug of war with Motorola, which makes most of the PowerPC chips slotted into Macs, for Apple's business.

The new chip offers significantly higher performance than IBM's current desktop PowerPC 750 and so could provide Apple with a performance boost if used in future desktop computers, the source said.

"It's a really hefty processor in terms of performance," said Kevin Krewell, managing editor of industry newsletter Microprocessor Report, which hosts the annual Microprocessor Forum. He added that the chip might debut in a server but declined to offer more details.

Apple's current desktop machines operate at speeds of up to 1GHz, with its top-of-the-line model offering a dual 1GHz chip setup.

In addition to having Power4 DNA, the new PowerPC will use an eight-way superscalar design, meaning it will be able to issue up to eight instructions per clock cycle. It will also support symmetric multiprocessing, allowing more than one chip to be used inside the same computer, according to the Microprocessor Forum Web site. But it's not likely this new PowerPC will use chip-multiprocessing techniques--unlike the Power4, which includes two processors on a single chip--sources familiar with the plans said.

Moreover, the new PowerPC will have a vector-processing unit with more than 160 specialized vector instructions, the Microprocessor Forum site said. This processing unit, which is similar to Motorola's AltiVec technology, will allow the chip to break up large amounts of data and process them in parallel form. It will be used when the chip is handling graphics or processing signals.

The chip's heritage--the Power4 design--suggests that it will be a high-performance processor. Though it's unclear what clock speed the new PowerPC will offer, IBM has been gunning for 2GHz. The company said last year that it intended to hit that speed target by the end of 2002.

IBM also declined to comment on unannounced products.

Details such as clock speed compatibility with 32-bit software and intended applications will likely be announced by engineers from IBM at the forum in October.