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eDRAM to boost IBM, AMD relationship

Posted: 21 Feb 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:eDRAM? DRAM? PC? CPU? Cell processor?

IBM unveiled a smaller, faster and cooler type of computer memory it says will improve the performance of graphics and other embedded systems over traditional SRAM.

But even with the advancements in DRAM, the announcement is expected to bolster IBM's relationship with Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and be a sharp stick in the eye to Intel.

Named eDRAMfor embedded DRAMthe technology will be a key feature of IBM's Cell processor roadmap starting sometime in 2008. IBM's Cell chip, which it co-produces with Sony Electronics and Toshiba, is the core CPU in all three of the best-selling video game platforms: Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox, and Nintendo Wii.

With the advent of multi-core chips, memory has become an increasingly critical aspect of microprocessor performance. IBM said eDRAM contains more than 12 million transistors and high-performance logic. It also takes up about one-third the space with one-fifth the standby power of conventional SRAM.

"What IBM is offering is pretty amazing in terms of how fast it is," says Alan Niebel, CEO and president of Web-Feet research, an analyst firm that specializes in computer system memory. "With two-nanosecond read access speeds, eDRAM will help render graphics in real time; making them so realistic that you can see the beads of sweat on a character's face."

Intel and other chipmaker's model of memory and logic differs in that it allows for floating integers and pooled computing resources or stacks double data rate synchronous dynamic random access memory near the CPU. The methods have had tremendous success especially with multi-core processors. Intel is expected to announce speed and design improvements later this year.

However, Niebel says IBM's eDRAM is little different than putting 1Gbyte of DRAM next to a central processor. "It's a lengthy process because you are writing the memory into the same chip. Traditionally, chipmakers can make the memory better and the logic suffers or the logic improves and the memory suffers. . . So it's a question of how long before eDRAM can be productized before we can make true comparisons."

"The big thing now is to take the technology from eDRAM and embed it into one of these standalone processors such as an Athlon or Opteron," Niebel says. Given their [IBM and AMD's] past collaborations, he says it's only a matter of time before eDRAM technology makes its way into an AMD chip.

Either way, it is unlikely that IBM will use its eDRAM for its own Cell processor to power desktops or laptops any time soon, Niebel said, because currently the Cell is not optimized to run Microsoft's Windows Vista or other Windows products.

And despite its application benefits, Niebel doesn't expect IBM to shatter any sales records anytime soon. The worldwide market sales leader for DRAM is Samsung followed by Micron and then South Korea's Hynix.

So why spend the R&D on improving the memory? IBM justifies the breakthrough because they've always sought to break the envelope with their system-on-a-chip designs. Other IBM breakthroughs include high-k, which enhances a transistor's function, copper on-chip wiring, silicon-on-insulator and silicon germanium transistors, strained silicon, and eFUSE, a technology that lets computer chips slow down and speed up depending on changing conditions.

- Michael Singer

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