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IBM, programmable chip firm team to boost PowerPC

Big Blue teams with Xilinx, whose chips are often used as prototypes for next-generation networking products, in a move that could lead to more powerful chips for the communications industry.

Xilinx, whose programmable chips are often used as prototypes for next-generation networking products, is teaming with IBM's Microelectronics unit in a move that could lead to more powerful chips for the communications industry.

The two companies will announce today that IBM has licensed its PowerPC processor core to Xilinx, which will gain access to IBM's copper manufacturing process to make its next generation of chips.

Xilinx plans to combine the IBM core with a future version of its Internet reconfigurable logic, chips whose actual structure can be changed remotely via the Internet. With IBM's technology, Xilinx will be able to make its chips smaller and faster. Meanwhile, the move gives IBM a chance to get its PowerPC architecture adopted in more products.

Programmable chips, while more costly, allow companies to get products to market quickly, said analyst Richard Doherty of the Envisioneering Group. Currently, communications equipment largely depends on custom-made chips built for a single function, called ASICs. While these types of chips might be cheaper, the fact that they are built to perform a limited range of functions mean the machines that contain them can't be upgraded easily.

"It's hours and days instead of weeks and months," Doherty said of the time saved by using the already well-defined PowerPC architecture rather than designing a processor core from scratch.

The deal could also mean more business for the IBM unit that makes custom chips, Doherty said. He sees a natural path as customers create initial PowerPC designs using Xilinx programmable chips and then look to move their designs to cheaper, higher-performance traditional chips.

IBM also plans to use Xilinx chips as early test products for its new manufacturing lines. Programmable logic chips are relatively straightforward to produce, and as part of today's deal, Xilinx will license to IBM a technology that helps diagnose problems in the manufacturing process.

Dataquest analyst Bryan Lewis said the tie-up is interesting for what it could mean down the road. Lewis said that in the future, Xilinx may license its programmable chip technology to IBM, allowing Big Blue to offer standard custom chips with a bit of programmability.

Lewis said so-called application-specific programmable chips could become popular as the chip world moves toward putting entire systems on a single piece of silicon.

Xilinx senior vice president Dennis Segers said the current agreement doesn't call for the technology to flow that way, but said it is a possibility for a future deal.

"That is something we are exploring," said Segers, who heads Xilinx's advanced products group.