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Rambus memory expanding to servers

The company is readying the next phase of its push into Intel-based computers, expanding from fast desktops into servers.

Memory technology maker Rambus is readying the next phase of its push into Intel-based computers, expanding from fast desktops into servers.

To back that push, the company will announce on Monday support for a technology that allows computers to keep working even if a memory chip fails completely, said Subodh Toprani, general manager of Rambus logic products division. The technology, called "chipkill" in the industry, is a feature demanded by computer makers selling machines that stay up and running even when major components fail.

"For the mid- to high-end server market, that's very important," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64. The lack of chipkill technology "has been one of the criticisms of Rambus."

Rambus' desire to arrive in servers appears to be ahead of the market, since a cheaper solution in that market is to use several banks of cheaper, mainstream memory technology, analysts say.

The server push raises the profile for Rambus, which has not received universal praise in the computer industry. Its technology has been touted for years as the next-generation, high-speed memory chip breakthrough. But the technology has been slow to catch on because, among other snags, it exacts licensing fees on memory chipmakers.

The high costs of making and using Rambus memory has diminished the enthusiasm of some memory manufacturers, and the Intel endorsement turned out not to be a guarantee of a straightforward trip to the bank.

Though many analysts expect the company's revenues to surge when its technology starts shipping in large quantities, the company's stock has been on a roller coaster ride.

Intel has been one of the strongest backers of Rambus, and the memory technology will debut in workstations in September when computers using Intel's Camino chipset arrive. Dell Computer and Compaq Computer in particular will be early Rambus proponents for workstations, analysts say.

Rambus now wants to see that technology used in servers as well, Toprani said.

Server hurdles
But Compaq, a dominant seller of Intel-based servers, isn't champing at the bit to get Rambus into servers in this year or next.

"There are currently no plans to use RDRAM [Rambus memory] on Compaq servers," said Tom Lattin, director of corporate server marketing. "We expect it to be at a performance disadvantage in servers, be in limited supply, and be priced at a premium relative to SDRAM [today's mainstream memory] technology through the year 2000."

Adding Rambus or other memory technologies requires that companies add a new chipset, the chips that connect the CPU to the memory and everything else plugged into the computer.

Intel's Carmel chipset, which can support four-processor systems, is the first Rambus-enabled system from Intel that's targeted for servers as well as workstations, said Intel spokesman Dan Francisco. The chipset is due in before the end of the year, he said.

In future low-end servers, Compaq will use a chipset from Reliant Computing Corporation, or RCC, said Mary McDowell, general manager of Compaq's industry standard server division, in an earlier interview. Historically, however, Compaq has picked its own chipset.

When Intel announced two weeks ago that it would support an extension of current SDRAM memory technology running at 133 MHz, "We weren't doing back flips," Toprani said. But ultimately, 133-MHz SDRAM still won't compete with Rambus, he said.

Cost issues
The biggest hurdle for Rambus to overcome right now is its added price. Fewer Rambus memory chips can be made from a silicon wafer than the equivalent mainstream memory chips, and the supply will be outstripped at the arrival, Toprani said.

But Rambus expects its performance advantages will lead it to spread downward into more and more mainstream computers. There are several major chip manufacturers with Rambus chips that have passed qualification, including Samsung, Toshiba, LG, Hyundai, and NEC, he said. And when volumes go up and competition kicks in, prices go down. Toprani predicts that the price premium for adopting Rambus will be halved by the end of the year.

Rambus doesn't make the chips itself, but instead receives royalties from chipmakers. The royalties, though, are a small percentage of the Rambus cost, he said. For a system with 64 megabytes of Rambus memory, the royalty payment is between $1 and $2, he said.

In the long run, Rambus will succeed and find a place in about 60 percent of the PC market, said Steve Cullen, an analyst with Cahners In-Stat. "We believe it is not a question of whether Rambus will be successful, but rather when," he said in a recent report.

"Rambus has been addressing some of the technical issues for a while," added Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. "Have I heard of any server vendors coming out with Rambus servers? No, but that doesn't mean there aren't people doing it."

Chipkill prototypes due this year
Samples of the chips using the chipkill technology are expected this year, Rambus said.

The chipkill technology in Rambus, called "interleaved data mode," will arrive with the next generation of Rambus memory chips. The current generation of chips each can store 128 megabits of data; chipkill will arrive with 256-megabit chips.

Samsung, one of the leading Rambus memory chip manufacturers, will make the new chipkill technology a standard part of its Rambus chip manufacturing, the company said. Adding the feature doesn't add much to the size and therefore expense of the chip, the company said.

Rambus also is working on memory technology for portable computers. That technology will arrive in 2000 and will consume less power than mainstream memory does today, the company said.

In addition, PixelFusion and another, unnamed maker of high-end graphics cards have licensed Rambus designs, Toprani said.