Hardware Today: Beyond Intel and AMD, x86 Processor Alternatives

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Oct 4, 2004

Processor choice in the x86 server market is analagous to that of the rental car industry: Hertz is number one, and Avis really is trying harder and is doing a fine job of keeping its rival on its toes. But if you don't want to use either, a wide range of choices are present — Budget, Enterprise, Alamo, and others that claim a decent slice of the pie.

Transmeta and VIA Technologies are two niche players in this field largely devoid of alternatives.
We look at chip choices from Transmeta and VIA Technologies, niche players running laps in what has become a two-horse race.

In the x86 processor market, Intel is king and AMD is working harder on a long-term strategy to topple the monarch. But that's where the similarity ends. Beyond those two, the options really are few and far between. Transmeta of Santa Clara, Calif. and VIA Technologies of Taiwan are two examples of niche players in this field largely devoid of alternatives.

"There is no doubt that Intel and AMD collectively own the server chip space," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst of the San Jose, Calif.-based Enderle Group. "But Transmeta has released some products for the low end, and VIA plays in some vertically targeted products."

Transmeta Tries Harder

Although Transmeta got its start targeting low-power mobile applications, it recently broadened its scope to appeal to OEMs looking for more processor efficiency (i.e., a better balance of low power consumption, high performance, low cost, and small size.) The Transmeta Efficeon processor, in particular, is aimed at the low-end blade and high-end workstation market, as well as at mobile, wireless, and embedded devices. It features three high-performance bus interfaces:

  • An on-chip HyperTransport bus interface for increased I/O efficiency
  • An on-chip Double Data Rate (DDR) SDRAM memory interface for increased throughput
  • An on-chip AGP graphics interface for high-performance graphics solutions

According to Greg Rose, director of segment marketing at Transmeta, these new interfaces allow Efficeon to achieve more work per clock cycle. "The Efficeon 1.5 GHz processor can get six times the number of Spec Ints [a SPEC benchmark] per watt of CPU power compared to an AMD Opteron or Intel Xeon," said Rose. "We have customers, such as HP, IBM, JMNet, and Orion Multisystems utilizing the Efficeon." In addition, Transmeta will be announcing additional major OEM partnerships in the next couple of weeks, he said.

HP is one OEM pleased to be using Efficeon chips. The processor is an integral part of its Consolidated Client Infrastructure architecture, where it uses blade racks to virtualize desktop hardware. By moving PC processing, storage, and networking from the desktop to the data center, backup, maintenance, and management functions are simplified resulting in a TCO HP claims is reduced by up to $1,200 per user, per year.

According to Rose, by using the Transmeta processor HP can pack 280 blades into one 42U rack (i.e., 20 processors per 3U modular enclosure, 14 per rack).

"HP does heat management better than any of the big players," said Enderle. "HP's move to Transmeta is an indication of just how much a technical/price advantage the Efficeon processor has in high-density solutions."

In the Consolidated Client Infrastructure architecture, a thin-client unit about the size of a small desktop speaker sits beside the monitor containing a Transmeta Crusoe processor. It connects to the blade servers to deliver Efficeon performance to the desktop. These units have no fans and no hard drives.

Another OEM using Transmeta chips is Orion Multisystems of Santa Clara, Calif. Orion is using the Efficeon in a supercomputer designed primarily for the scientific high-computing power workstation market. As one of its specs was to be able to use a standard wall unit, the company harnessed clustered Efficeon processors to keep the heat rate down.

"The power efficiency per watt of the Efficeon was instrumental in our decision to use Transmeta's high-performance processor," said Colin Hunter, president and CEO of Orion Multisystems. "Another key factor was its ability to handle the heavy computational loads required in cluster computing."

The specifications for Orion Multisystems' top-of-the-line DS-96 machine include 96 nodes with 300 Gflops peak performance (150 sustained), up to 192 gigabytes of memory, and up to 9.6 terabytes of storage. It consumes less than 1500 watts and fits under a desk (in a 17-inch by 27-inch by 25-inch enclosure). The smaller 12-node version consumes less than 220 watts.

Despite these and other gains for Transmeta in the server and high-end workstation market, it remains to be seen whether the chip's ability to maximize operations per-watt, per-dollar translates into server market share in the long term.

>> VIA the Way

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