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Low-powered Power chips percolating out

Power chips aren't as prevalent as they once were, but they still have a following in the telco space.

P.A. Semi has begun to release samples of its Power microprocessor--which consumes less power than similar, conventional chips--to potential customers, and the company says it will have products out in the fourth quarter.

The company's first PWRficient chip contains two cores running at 2GHz and a 2MB shared cache (an integrated pool of memory for fast data access). While that's relatively fast, the chip consumes only about 5 to 13 watts on average. At a maximum, it consumes 25 watts.

"That is between three to four times better" than standard Power chips, said Pete Bannon, vice president of architecture and verification at P.A. Semi. Power consumption has been a problem for chips based around the Power-based architecture: Apple shifted from IBM Power chips because of it. The current Power chips can hit 90 watts or more.

Rather than try to enter the general server market, P.A. Semi will target its chips primarily at the communications equipment market, where the Power architecture remains quite popular. The market for Power processors comes to about $1.5 billion in annual revenue, Bannon said.

Customers are already testing the chip. Commercial supplies of chips will likely start coming out in the fourth quarter, Bannon said. P.A. Semi will also produce a less expensive single-core version of the chip at the end of the year. Samples of the chip cost about $700.

Getting communication equipment manufacturers to move to new chips--particularly to new chips from younger companies--has historically been difficult, but Bannon said recent circumstances play to P.A. Semi's strengths. First, electricity bills are climbing and buyers at telecommunications companies, like general server buyers, now rate power consumption as an important consideration.

Second, the chip can handle virtualization, thereby allowing telcos to consolidate several functions into a single piece of equipment.

Part of the power savings in P.A.'s chips comes from integration. The PWRficient chips contain I/O functions and other technologies that often are on separate pieces of silicon. Integration usually reduces power consumption and cost. The chip is based around the same architecture as the Power 6 coming from IBM, and generally it will run all of the software for the Power family.

The P.A. in P.A. Semi stands for Palo Alto, Calif., where the company used to be based. Now it's in Santa Clara, Calif.