Via's twin-core processor may upstage AMD, Intel

In a move that could upstage the dual-core processor plans of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Intel, Via Technologies is developing a twin-core x86 processor that is likely to hit the market by June 2005, a company executive confirmed Tuesday.

A launch in June would give Via a shot at being the first company to introduce an x86 processor with two cores.

"We're pretty confident we'll have something by the end of Q2 next year," said Richard Brown, Via's associate vice president of marketing, in Taipei.

The twin-core processor is primarily designed to be used in high-density server clusters. Via has demonstrated that two processors can fit onto a small Mini-ITX motherboard and it will be feasible for customers to offer a standard 1U server chassis containing two Mini-ITX motherboards running four twin-core processors, Brown said.

Via's twin-core processor contains two pieces of silicon -- each with one Esther processor core on it -- inside a single chip package, Brown said. By comparison, dual-core processors, which are being developed by AMD and Intel, put two cores on a single piece of silicon. Via also has plans to offer a dual-core chip, but that product is not expected to be available any time soon.

Announced in May, the Esther cores are manufactured by IBM using a 90 nanometer process. The 32 bit chips consume 3.5 watts when running at a clock speed of 1GHz and will run at a clock speed of up to 2GHz. Esther also incorporates Via's PadLock security technology that offers hardware-accelerated RSA encryption and support for NX (execution protection) antivirus technology.

Via has not finalized the clock speed of the cores that will be used in the twin-core chips, Brown said.

Putting two cores, each on a separate piece of silicon, inside of a single package is not a simple endeavor and Via is currently working through issues such as heat and interference that must be resolved for the chip to work properly, Brown said. However, Via is confident these issues will be resolved, he said, noting that the dual-core approach presents its own set of challenges.

One of those challenges is production yield, Brown said. With two cores on each silicon chip, there is a greater chance that something can go wrong and the chips will not meet the required performance specifications.

Via chose the twin-core design because it will allow the company to more quickly bring to market a processor with two cores, Brown said. The company doesn't believe that a significant performance difference currently exists between the two approaches, he said.

This is likely true for the types of applications that Via plans to target with the twin-core processor, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64. Via does not have the contacts within the U.S. and European business communities that Intel has long held and that AMD is starting to develop, and will focus on bringing this product to low-end servers in Asia and the market for embedded products, Brookwood said.

"Via's in a whole different world as far as who it is selling to, there's not a lot of overlap," Brookwood said.

Pricing for the chip has not yet been set. "The pricing will be affordable but we're not going to go ultra low cost," Brown said.

Intel and AMD have committed to releasing dual-core processors in 2005. Transmeta, the only other significant vendor of x86 processors, has said that it is skeptical about the benefits of a dual-core chip within its low-power niche market and does not have a dual-core chip on its road map.

AMD is targeting the middle of next year for its dual-core Opteron chip, which it has already demonstrated in an existing Hewlett-Packard server. Intel has said it will release dual-core chips for its desktop, notebook, and high-end server product groups by the end of 2005. It intends to release a dual-core processor for low-end servers in 2006.

(Tom Krazit contributed to this report.)