COMDEX: Intel launches low-power server chip

Intel is continuing its product assault on chipmaker Transmeta with the announcement of a low-power processor and chip set combination targeted at ultra-dense servers--where the struggling Transmeta has made inroads.

Announced at Comdex here Tuesday, Intel's new server product is the 700-MHz Ultra Low Voltage Pentium III processor. It includes 512KB of on-chip cache, and Intel says it runs at just 1.1 volts. Low-power, cooler-running chips are key to the success of high-density servers--sometimes called blade servers--where space constraints can make heat dissipation difficult. It's Intel's first server product aimed at the blade market.

From Mobile to servers

If Intel's Ultra Low Voltage chip sounds familiar it's because the company released the same chip as a notebook processor last month.

However, along with the chip, Intel is offering a new sever-specific 440 GX chip set package, says Shannon Poulin, launch and disclosure manager. That new chip set includes error-correcting code capabilities and support for up to 2GB of memory. Those are two server-geared features new to low-power chip sets, he says. The chip does include SpeedStep, the Intel notebook technology that lowers the CPU's (central processing unit's) frequency to save battery power, but server users will likely run the chip at full speed full time, Poulin says.

While he admits Intel didn't create this chip from the ground up to be a server processor, Poulin says the chip and chip set combination let the company enter the dense server market with a product vendors want. If the blade server market takes off, Intel will pursue future designs. If it's a niche market, the company will serve it another way, he says. He uses a building analogy to describe the emerging market.

"We have the building blocks for the ground level," Poulin says. "This [market] could turn out to be a skyscraper, or a two-story building." By the first quarter of next year Intel expects to offer another existing processor with more server-specific tweaks, he says. A newly adjusted chip set will also appear.

Pounding on transmeta

Intel says Compaq, Dell, and Hewlett Packard have already committed to server designs based on the new Ultra Low Voltage chip. None has yet announced release dates or pricing, however.

With major vendors siding with Intel, and several of its early customers folding, Transmeta's plans to sell its Crusoe processors into the server market look a bit grim.

The company's recently-fired chief executive officer (CEO) noted in early October that Transmeta had stumbled into the server market, with several small vendors opting to use the Crusoe in their products. The sales were welcome, as the company's notebook success in Japan has failed to materialize in the United States.

Intel was bound to challenge the company's early success in the dense server market, says analyst Nathan Brookwood of Insight 64. Transmeta made the mistake of challenging the chip giant directly by making somewhat misleading claims about the power consumption of Intel's mobile chip.

Intel struck back with new ultra-low power chips in mobile, and it now sees an opportunity in the server market, too, he says.

"If you're going to take on Intel you have to have a real advantage. Theirs was always a little bogus," he says, in that Transmeta compared its chip's average power consumption to Intel's worst-case power consumption.

After initially protesting Trasnmeta's claims, Intel opted to answer with products, and did so quickly, Brookwood notes. Now Intel can say "we're under a watt, too," he says.

With Intel pounding away at both the low-power mobile and server markets, Transmeta has an uphill battle for survival ahead, he says.

"Transmeta's early advantage was it identified the [low-power] opportunity first," he explains. However, Intel quickly closed in, and is now making life tough for Transmeta. "Intel is not a fun company to compete with," Brookwood says.

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Tom Mainelli

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