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IBM chipping away at communications

Big Blue will launch a high-speed PowerPC chip to buttress its communications business, which the company is counting on to drive sales as it looks beyond the Apple Macintosh.

IBM today will launch a high-speed PowerPC chip to buttress its communications business, which the company is counting on to drive sales as it looks beyond the Apple Macintosh.

This announcement follows the debut earlier this month of an IBM "network processor" also targeted at the communications industry. The chip is intended for use by companies like Cisco and 3Com, manufacturers of the routers and switches that act as traffic cops for the massive amounts of data flowing across the Internet.

IBM's new chip, the PowerPC 440, is a basic design which customers build upon. "This is not a standard processor. This is bare bones...a basic engine. Other features are added [by the customer]," said Tony Massimini, an analyst at Semico Research.

The previously announced network processor, he said, is a fixed hardware design, while the new chip is a "core" designed to serve as a foundation for custom designs. He said that both chips could conceivably be used in the same device, such as a router, because they serve two different purposes. Furthermore, because communications equipment already uses chips like the 440, it is meant to allow customers to support existing designs, according to an IBM spokesperson.

The chip will run as fast as 550 MHz, which is an unusually high speed for this market and comes close to the fastest processors found in high-end PCs. But these days communications devices "tend to chew up [processors] and ask for more," according to Massimini.

But IBM also needs new uses for its high-speed technology as Motorola takes the lead in making chips for Apple's Macintosh computers which Big Blue has made for many years.

"While the PowerPC architecture may be best known for chips for Apple Computer systems, what may not be as well known is that the PowerPC has found broader penetration," IBM said in a statement. Other applications could include TV set-top boxes and printers.

The four-square-millimeter PowerPC 440 is based on IBM's copper technology, which in some cases can provide better performance than typical chips based on aluminum.

The chip will also serve as an upgrade path. The 440 provides an upgrade to processor designs based on the existing PowerPC 401 and 405 processors and is the first to be compliant with the new "Book E" enhancements to the PowerPC architecture, IBM said.

To boost performance, IBM also introduced a 128-bit bus called CoreConnect, which doubles the size of the data path in previous 64-bit technology. A bus is a conduit for shuttling data between devices in a computer.

A number of organizations have licensed the CoreConnect Bus, according to IBM. These licensees include Analog Devices, Cadence Design Systems, Inc., Carnegie Mellon University, Japan's Kyushu University, and Mentor Graphics Corp.

IBM also said that it had reached a milestone by shipping its one millionth copper PowerPC chip, just one year after shipping the first copper chip.

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