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Coppermine launch to spark servers, Rambus workstations

Major computer manufacturers are unveiling high-end systems today based on Intel's new Pentium III processors, but the debut won't be a total victory for the chipmaking giant.

SANTA CLARA, California--Major computer manufacturers are unveiling high-end systems today based on Intel's new Pentium III and Pentium III Xeon processors, but the debut won't be a total victory for the chipmaking giant.

The enhanced Pentium III chips and some new computers are being shown off at an event here today. Code-named Coppermine and Cascades, the chips will bring dramatic performance improvements of more than 10 percent beyond the performance of existing designs, analysts and manufacturers say. But in many leading computer makers' systems, the phrase "Intel Inside" will apply only to the central processing unit (CPU).

Servers from IBM, Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, and Hewlett-Packard will use a chipset from Reliance Computing Corporation (RCC), not Intel, to enable the CPU to talk to the rest of the computer. That's a setback for Intel's push to sell manufacturers more parts of a PC's innards.

In addition, the timing isn't perfect. Although some systems will be available at the same time as Intel's official announcement today, others won't actually arrive for weeks or even months.

"This is a less-than-perfect launch, from a logistics standpoint, than we've seen in the past," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64.

The new chips substantially boost higher-end servers and workstations, largely because the chips come with high-speed memory called cache, a performance-enhancing data reservoir, built into the chip itself--a method Intel first used with its low-end Celeron chips. Current chips have separate secondary caches. The chips also benefit from a big increase in clock speed, with chips that run as fast as 733 MHz set to debut. The cache and the chip also transfer data at a much faster rate.

Faster and faster
The Coppermine chips will speed another notch faster next year, with 800-MHz and then 1-GHz chips arriving by the end of 2000.

"The technology, as we evolve it, will take us to over 1 GHz in processor speed," said Paul Otellini, general manager of Intel architecture business group.

"You have to be able to produce these in multimillions of units," Otellini said in a veiled jab at Intel rival AMD and its ability to produce Athlon chips. Intel has four chip plants making the Coppermine chips and will add a fifth in the first quarter of 2000, whereas AMD has said it has one and is opening a second.

Computer manufacturers such as Dell and Compaq were conspicuously absent from the debut today. "We just have so much to introduce today--15 new processors, a new chipset, [products in] four market segments," said Intel spokesman George Alfs. "We wanted to try to keep the press conference within a reasonable amount of time."

Though Intel unveiled its new 840 chipset today for use in workstations and other high-end systems, computers using it for the most part aren't yet available. The chipset is the collection of supporting chips that shuttle data between the CPU and the rest of the computer system, and with the delay of the 820, the 840 is the first chipset that enables use of Rambus memory.

Compaq's new AP550 workstation using the 840 is available now, but 840-based workstations from IBM, Dell, Intergraph, and HP won't arrive until the second half of November or later, company representatives said.

"What we've seen before in the workstation market and the server market is a little bit longer time [needed] to develop and optimize systems," Alfs said.

The 840 chipset has two separate channels for communicating with Rambus memory for a total peak theoretical bandwidth of 3.2 gigabytes per second, which is twice the 1.6 GB/sec of the 820 chipset. Alfs said the 840 isn't suffering from the problem that afflicted the 820.

Intel has said its 820 chipset will ship in systems by the end of the year.

In practical terms, Coppermine Pentium IIIs and Cascades Xeon chips are the same chip tweaked for different functions. Since the differences are small, however, many appear to be going with Coppermine now because it is slightly cheaper. In the future, Cascades chips will become more attractive because they could be used in four-processor systems and contain more cache.

IBM, for one, won't be using them. "There's no performance difference," said Alex Yost, a marketing manager for IBM's Netfinity line of Intel servers.

Computer makers are also smiling about the Coppermine's 133-MHz "frontside bus," the data pathway that transmits information to and from the chip. That improvement speeds communication with memory as well as components critical to server performance, such as disk drives and network cards.

Servers emerging gradually
As to the RCC chipset, companies are using it in Coppermine-based servers for a variety of reasons. One is that Intel's 840 chipset uses Rambus memory, which costs more than conventional memory. In servers using a lot of memory, that price differential adds up.

"We believe [Rambus memory] is not ready for servers yet," but Dell will adopt it in servers in 2000, said Subo Guha, Dell's director of product marketing.

Over the next few weeks, Coppermine servers gradually will emerge from the major manufacturers.

IBM will refresh its Netfinity 5600 server line with Coppermine chips in late November, but customers with 5600s today will be able to upgrade them, Yost said. IBM has shipped nearly 100 of the new servers to some of its big customers, he added.

Compaq's Coppermine-based servers will show up in the first quarter of 2000, a representative said. Hewlett-Packard's Coppermine-based servers won't be available at launch, but they will be coming in a few weeks, a spokesperson said.

Dell will refresh its existing PowerEdge 2300 and 4300 servers with the new chips, but it will phase those models out at the end of the first quarter, said Guha. Replacing the 2300 will be the new 2400, which Dell is using to spearhead its latest attack on IBM, Compaq, and HP.

The 2400 will have a built-in ability to talk to arrays of hard disks joined together in RAID configurations that protects data from loss, Guha said. RAID is a method that ties together numerous hard disks for greater performance and reliability. While other manufacturers have done this already, Dell will do it at lower cost, Guha said. The built-in RAID system will use Intel's i960 communications chip.

Interestingly, the deployment of RCC's LE64 chipset will be the first time Dell has used a non-Intel chipset, Guha said.

RCC is pleased with its chipset's success. "This is our third-generation design," said David Pulling, vice president of marketing. A lot of the work RCC did in pushing 133-MHz conventional memory now is paying off, he said.

Rambus revival
Though RCC won in servers, Intel's new 840 "Carmel" chipset will appear in Coppermine workstations, enabling the use of Rambus memory for the first time.

The next-generation Rambus memory technology was supposed to debut last month, but its arrival was derailed because of a bug in Intel's 820 chipset, a little brother to the 840.

Systems based on the 820 are likely to start shipping in middle to late November, said Keith Lefebvre, director of product marketing for Compaq's workstation division.

But Compaq workstations using Rambus and the 840 chipset will be shipping in "less than a month," Lefebvre said. Lower-end workstations using current Intel chipsets and Coppermine chips will be available immediately.

The new models will be the first to emerge under a reorganization of Compaq's workstation division that merged it with the business-oriented DeskPro desktop computer line. As a result of the joining of forces, the workstation line will be able to take advantage of the production, design, and distribution advantages from the DeskPro division, Lefebvre said.

Using Rambus memory shows a 5 to 10 percent performance improvement on typical jobs, but on some memory-intensive tasks the workstations show a 17 or 18 percent improvement, Lefebvre said.

Industry sources said that IBM workstations with the 840 chipset and Rambus memory would be available in November. Micron Electronics also will debut Coppermine systems, but will use Via chipsets and ordinary SDRAM memory, a source familiar with the company's plans said.

By selecting Via's chipset instead of Intel's 820, Micron sidestepped the delayed debut of Rambus memory technology that caused problems to other manufacturers last month.

Michael Kanellos reported from Santa Clara and Stephen Shankland from San Francisco.