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A peek at faster Power6, Cell chips

At a chip show, IBM to tout 5GHz-topping Power6 and next-gen 6GHz Cell. Intel to detail a 4GHz, 80-core prototype.

Judging by details revealed in a chip conference agenda, the clock frequency race isn't over yet.

IBM's Power6 processor will be able to exceed 5 gigahertz in a high-performance mode, and the second-generation Cell Broadband Engine processor from IBM, Sony and Toshiba will run at 6GHz, according to the program for the International Solid State Circuits Conference that begins February 11 in San Francisco.

Chipmakers have run into problems increasing chip clock speed--essentially an electronic heartbeat that synchronizes operations in a processor--because higher frequencies have led to unmanageable power consumption and waste heat.

To compensate, Intel and Advanced Micro Devices have turned instead to the addition of multiple processing cores on each slice of silicon. That's effective when computers are juggling numerous tasks at the same time, but increasing the clock speed means an individual task can run faster.

The first-generation Cell Broadband Engine chip, co-developed by IBM, Sony, and Toshiba, has just appeared in Sony's PlayStation 3 game console and can run at 4GHz. The second-generation chip will run at 6GHz, according to the ISSCC program. In addition, the new chip will have a dual power supply that increases memory performance--a major bottleneck in computer designs today.

For servers, IBM has said its Power6 processor, due to ship in servers in 2007, will run between 4GHz and 5GHz. But in the ISSCC program, Big Blue said the chip's clock will tick at a rate "over 5GHz in high-performance applications." In addition, the chip "consumes under 100 watts in power-sensitive applications," a power range comparable to mainstream 95-watt AMD Opteron chips and 80-watt Intel Xeon chips.

Power6 has 700 million transistors and measures 341 square millimeters, according to the program. The smaller that a chip's surface area is, the more that can be carved out of a single silicon wafer, reducing per-chip manufacturing costs and therefore making a computer more competitive. Power6, like the second-generation Cell, is built with a manufacturing process with 65-nanometer circuitry elements, letting more electronics be squeezed onto a given surface area.

Intel isn't standing idly by, though. In September, Intel showed a glimpse of a prototype chip with 80 cores that can perform a trillion mathematical calculations per second. At ISSCC, the company will shed more details on the design, including an updated speed measurement of 1.28 trillion calculations per second.

The chip measures 275 square millimeters--smaller than the 303-square-millimeter area indicated in September--and runs at 4GHz, according to the program. The chip, which Intel describes as a "network-on-chip architecture," has 100 million transistors and dissipates 98 watts of waste heat. Intel called each core a tile and said each has network switch features to route packets of data.

"It was designed as a research tool to test interconnect strategies for many-core processors," Intel spokeswoman Erica Fields said. Research goals for the project included testing new chip design methods and investigating "how to move terabytes of data rapidly between cores on-chip and between the cores and memory." She added that the prototype can't run conventional software for Intel chips.

Among other processor-related talks at the show:

• Sun Microsystems will discuss its Niagara 2 processor, an eight-core design that can run 64 simultaneous sequences of instructions, called threads. The chip measures 342 square millimeters and has 500 million transistors, according to the program.

• P.A. Semi, a start-up that designs chips compatible with IBM's Power designs, also plans to detail its chip, a dual-core design that consumes a maximum of 25 watts and that runs at 2GHz. The chip measures 115 square millimeters, according to the program.

• Advanced Micro Devices will discuss its quad-core Barcelona, due to arrive in mid-2007.