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Reliance Computer renames, deals with Intel

The chipmaker renames itself ServerWorks and unveils a key partnership with its biggest competitor: Intel.

Reliance Computer has renamed itself ServerWorks and unveiled a key partnership with its biggest rival: Intel.

The company, competing in a little-regarded but vitally important chip market, has signed a deal with the industry's hegemon in hopes of staying ahead of the curve. Like Intel and smaller companies such as Via Technologies and SiS, ServerWorks, based here, makes chipsets, the critical chips that connect central processing units (CPU) with everything else in computers--such as memory, network cards, hard disks and graphics cards.

The move, intended to help the company keep up with Intel's current and future CPUs, provides ServerWorks with access to the technical specifications of the "bus," or data pathway, used to talk to the CPU. The agreement runs through 2008, according to executives.

Though it would seem otherwise, it's not paradoxical for a company to be an Intel competitor and partner simultaneously. "Intel is willing to sign an agreement with anybody who will help them sell more microprocessors," said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood.

Legal squabbles with Intel have hampered the chipset efforts of Via and SiS, but ServerWorks is confident it will be able to stay on the company's good side, said Kimball Brown, vice president of business development at ServerWorks. "We have a fabulous relationship with the CPU team," he said.

The agreement coincides with a corporate name-change, which had been expected, and the unveiling of a new Web site. ServerWorks hopes to raise its profile in order to prepare for an initial public offering, planned for later this year, and to attract new customers, said chief executive Raju Vegesna.

As the new name would suggest, ServerWorks seems most interested in high-end computing systems. In servers, Brown argues, the CPU is in charge, but the chipset often is the workhorse, transferring information among the network, the hard disk and memory.

Chipsets may never have as high a profile as CPUs, Vegesna added, but the features will be in great demand.

For instance, the next-generation ServerSet IV will enable the higher-speed PCI-X technology for plugging in network cards and other peripherals as well as "hot plug" methods of swapping out faulty memory or PCI cards without shutting a computer down, Vegesna said. Higher-speed double-data-rate memory also is planned.

ServerWorks' current ServerSet III chipset is used in two-processor servers from Intel, Dell, IBM and Compaq, the largest manufacturers of Intel servers. But much of the 85-person company's attention is focused on the next generation of chips from Intel, code-named Foster and due later this year.

Foster will provide a new core to replace the current Pentium design, which has been used for years. But more important for ServerWorks, it will provide a new and faster bus that will speed communications between the CPU and its surrounding hardware.

Current Pentiums allow communication rates of 800 megabytes per second. The Foster bus will enable rates four times that, 3.2 gigabytes per second.

Future chipsets from ServerWorks designed to work with Intel's "McKinley" chip, due in late 2001, will enable speeds of 5 gigabytes per second, Brown said.

McKinley is the sequel to Itanium, Intel's first crack at a 64-bit processor. Brown said ServerWorks won't make a chipset for Itanium, which was code-named Merced. "We're not going to invest in Merced," he said. "We believe that it's a development platform."

As previously reported, ServerWorks is targeting the server appliance market. A server appliance is configured in advance to do a specific job, making it faster, cheaper or easier to use than a general-purpose server.

Brown said server appliances, while not as powerful as general-purpose systems, are usually good enough for a job. And some types of server appliances--specifically the ultra-thin ones bolted by the dozens to racks--will become more powerful when Intel starts shipping thinner "flip-chip" designs, Brown said. Those chips will enable two-processor systems 1.75 inches tall, half the thickness of current systems.