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IBM workstations to pack 630 chip

Big Blue released two new Unix workstations today, including one uses IBM's most sophisticated RISC-based chip. Later, they'll both incorporate the 630.

IBM released two new Unix workstations today, one based on its Power2 Super Chip and the other based on a new 332-MHz version of the 604 PowerPC chip. Big Blue will follow with workstations based on a new 630 PowerPC chip in 1998.

By mid- to late 1998, IBM workstations will be designed around the PowerPC 630 chip, said Bill Fleming, marketing manager for the RS/6000. "We will be merging the floating point performance with the best of the 604 [PowerPC chip] into a new family of chips called the PowerPC 630," he said. Apparently, IBM will not be bringing out a 620 PowerPC processor, which has been on the roadmap for years but has yet to see the light of day.

The convergence will likely make IBM workstations more balanced, Fleming and others pointed out. Currently, the Power2 chip is the fastest chip on the market for floating point calculations, the heavy, number-crunching calculations employed by financial analysts and research scientists. The chip's performance on integer calculations, which relate more to graphics processing, however, is "abysmal," said Peter ffoulkes, workstation analyst at Dataquest.

IBM's separate line of PowerPC chips--including the 603, 604, and 750--are designed more for integer calculations, according to the company. But, at 332 MHz, only one or two more turns of the crank are possible for the Power2 chip in the current generation, said Fleming.

The RS/6000 Workstation/Server Model 397 is the first workstation to use the Power2 chip, a version of the sophisticated RISC processor that acted as the brains inside the chess-playing "Deep Blue" computer. The chip is the most sophisticated RISC-based microprocessor developed by IBM to date, according to the company.

Model 397 contains a Power2 chip running at 160 MHz, with a large amount of high-speed cache memory to boost performance. IBM integrates a whopping 160K of "Level 1" cache memory in the 15-million-transistor chip. By comparison, Intel's Pentium II chips have 32K of the same type of cache memory. Cache memory accelerates system performance by keeping the processor, which operates much faster than the rest of the system, fed with data. Generally, the more cache there is, the greater the performance.

The processor is capable of executing six instructions simultaneously. Most chips handle a maximum of two or three instructions at a time.

The system also comes with 128MB of memory (expandable to 1GB), hard drives up to a maximum of 27.3GB, a 256-bit memory bus, and a powerful 3D graphics chip. The machine comes complete with the AIX operating system. It will ship in the middle of the month for a starting price of $29,900.

IBM is also releasing the Power2 chip as an upgrade for the existing RS/6000 customer base.

The 43P Model 140, on the other hand, employs the 332-MHz PowerPC 604e processor. The new chip represents a jump in speed of 99 MHz, a huge advance, according to Fleming. The machine comes with 64MB Error Correcting Cache memory expandable to 768MB, a 20X CD-ROM drive, a 2.1GB hard drive expandable to 18.1GB, and a two-user license for various generations of AIX.

Available in November, the 43P will start at $10,500.

The new releases could inject some life into IBM's presence in the workstation arena. Lately, the company's profile has been relatively moribund, said sources.

"They don't have a big chunk of the workstation market. When you talk to customers, IBM is not the name that pops up," said Tom Rhinelander, a computing analyst at Forrester Research. Sun and HP are generally the more dominant players.

Despite the heat and publicity generated by NT workstations this year, Rhinelander stated that the Unix market is still fairly strong, especially since performance gaps still exist between NT and Unix on complex application processing.

"They [Unix-machine manufacturers] are getting nipped in the heels. They are definitely feeling the heat," he said, "There's a lot of interest in low-end workstations, but people are still buying Sun. They are still buying HP."

Deep Blue has become one of the highlights of IBM's marketing message ever since the supercomputer defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in tournament conditions earlier this spring. Since then, IBM has demonstrated workstations designed around Deep Blue at Wall Street trading houses.