Hardware Today: Beyond Intel and AMD, x86 Processor Alternatives

by Drew Robb

We look at chip choices from Transmeta and VIA Technologies, niche players running laps in what has become a two-horse race.

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.

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

Is VIA the Way?

Another small player in the threadbare x86 processor alternative scene is VIA Technologies. Like Transmeta, VIA is known primarily for its role in the consumer and mobile markets. Its x86 chips are targeted at miniaturization, low+power and digital media applications. However, there is some spill-over into the low end of the blade market, primarily in Asia. VIA's 1.4 GHz VIA C3 processor is well-suited for blades, as it runs cool and delivers low levels of energy consumption at less than 7 watts.

"Price is a huge driver in the third world, and VIA is seen by some as a local vendor better able to relate with other vendors in those geographies," said Enderle.

According to Tim Handley, VIA's processor platforms marketing manager, VIA processor platforms have been used in networking server applications for several years. "The VIA EPIA Mini-ITX boards are becoming popular for low-power server clusters because they are so readily available," he said, "The VIA C3 processor is currently the most popular VIA processor for low-power cluster servers because of its power efficiency and excellent heat dissipation properties."

In addition, the company has several new designs on the market. Its fanless VIA Eden processor is gaining in popularity for networking devices, such as network-attached servers. There are also some new 3U server blade designs in the works that could achieve up to 40 CPUs in a a 3U rack using 20 dual-processor blades. Further, the company is adding multiprocessing, gigabit Ethernet, and integrated wireless features to some of its boards. That may make them even more useful for server applications.

At next week's Fall Processor Forum in San Jose, Calif., VIA plans to demonstrate a 1U server with two dual-processor VIA Mini-ITX mainboards, Handley said. That means four processors and four hard drives in a single 1U rack powered by two fanless 12V DC power supplies.

It's a Two-Chip World

Gartner analyst John Enck, though, is skeptical about either VIA or Transmeta evolving into a serious challenger in the server x86 chip market. He doesn't see VIA making many inroads at all, and notes that the Efficeon is available only as a single processor option. Once you move up to two processors, you have to go with AMD or Intel.

"I don't see Transmeta being used in many mainstream server products," said Enck. "Its primary attraction was in lower-power consumption, so when Intel and AMD came out with lower-voltage processors, Transmeta was largely marginalized, even in the low-power blade space."

This article was originally published on Monday Oct 4th 2004
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