Faster, cheaper memory on the horizon

A faster version of PC memory will start to appear in workstations and server computers toward the end of the year, a development that could present yet another challenge to the much-hyped Rambus memory technology.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
A faster version of PC memory will start to appear in workstations and server computers toward the end of the year, a development that could present yet another challenge to the much-hyped Rambus memory technology.

Although the clamor isn't universal, a number of executives and analysts are predicting that the technology with an unwieldy name--Double Data Rate Dynamic Random Access Memory, or DDR DRAM--is in line to become the de facto standard for computer memory.

DDR DRAM has one major factor working in its favor: Because it is a derivative of current computer memory, most manufacturers and computer designers should be able to incorporate DDR DRAM chips fairly easily. In addition, it will likely be significantly cheaper than Rambus-based memory, assuming problems aren't encountered along the way.

Rambus has emerged as one of Silicon Valley's most controversial companies because of various delays, technical glitches and marketing problems that have disrupted the product plans for a number of partners. Rambus has designed a form of computer memory, called RDRAM, that supporters say will improve overall PC performance because it will deliver data to the processor at a much faster rate.

The company does not make memory chips. Rather, it licenses the design to memory makers and chipset manufacturers and collects royalties from these companies. Because of the promised performance benefits, chip giant Intel chose to base its future architectures around Rambus a few years ago, all but anointing it as the next standard.

Rambus' seemingly bright future darkened in September when Intel unexpectedly delayed its 820 chipset. The delay, the second, stunned many PC makers who had been counting on Camino to enable next-generation Rambus memory.

"We believe the momentum behind DDR will eclipse (Rambus)," said Sherry Garber, senior vice president at Semico Research. "In many cases, the (computer) designs can accommodate the shift very easily."

By the end of 2004, DDR will account for 50 percent of the market, she theorized, while Rambus will hold a relative sliver in the performance-PC space.

Rambus representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

If anything, interest among computer companies is growing. Advanced Micro Devices, ServerWorks, Via Technologies and other pro-DDR companies are talking about computers arriving this year containing the memory. Intel has said DDR memory will appear in servers containing its chips by 2001.

"You will see servers (using DDR) in the fourth quarter of this year, and I think you'll see desktops introduced in the third quarter," said Jim Sogas, director of the memory business unit at Hitachi Semiconductor, which introduced its DDR DRAM strategy last summer.

DDR is essentially a version of computer memory called SDRAM, but it processes data twice as fast. SDRAM chips being inserted into PCs today provide data to the processor at 100 MHz or 133 MHz. DDR runs at the same speed, but because it can cycle through twice the amount of data in the same period of time, it effectively functions at 200 MHz or 266 MHz.

Adoption of DDR will also prompt processor makers to speed up their system bus, an important data conduit. AMD is slated to boost the system bus associated with the Athlon processor to 266 MHz, while Intel will likely jump from 133 MHz to 200 MHz with its next-generation processor.

Speeding up data flow has been a pressing issue in PC design for years. Momentum initially built up around memory based on designs from Rambus because it promised to alleviate the bandwidth issues.

While Rambus memory does help improve data flow, it fails in other areas. For one, it has proven difficult and expensive to manufacture. The fastest Rambus memory chips, running at 800 MHz, remain in sporadic supply, a problem acknowledged both by computer industry sources and Rambus executives.

"They (computer makers) need the bandwidth and nobody seems to be happy with Rambus," said Keith Diefendorff, editor in chief of The Microprocessor Report.

Rambus memory is also expensive. Some chip dealers are currently selling 64MB of Rambus memory, an amount found in most PCs today, for $496 and up. By contrast, 64MB of 133-MHz SDRAM can be purchased for $69.

It will also cost a bit more to manufacture and test DDR DRAM, according to Dean Klein, vice president of integrated products at Micron Technology.

The technology is being aided by the support of chipset makers who will make ancillary products for DDR DRAM. Chipsets are the collection of chips that connect the CPU with all the other parts of a computer.

AMD will match its Athlon processor with DDR DRAM toward the middle of the year. ServerWorks and Via are coming out with chipsets that will allow server makers to utilize DDR DRAM. An Intel representative said that servers containing Intel chips and DDR will hit by 2001, although the company remains committed to Rambus for performance desktops.

"There is going to be deep penetration into servers and workstations by the end of the year," said Kimball Brown, vice president of sales and marketing at ServerWorks.

Direct comparisons between Rambus and DDR can be deceiving. Rambus currently is targeted at high-end PCs, not at workstations and servers. DDR and Rambus memory, therefore, will compete indirectly at first.