Search for processing-power grail means more functionality in chips

Search for processing-power grail means more functionality in chips

By John H. Mayer

While the Wintel world waits for the highly anticipated 64-bit Merced microprocessor to appear sometime in the next year, RISC workstation vendors are not sitting still.

Many are developing new processors that will serve as the foundation for a new class of high-performance workstations.

In their continuing search for more processing power, processor designers are throwing more functionality into their chips.

Most of the coming generation of processors will add large Level 2 memory caches to feed these fast machines. Others will pack more than one processor core together to get a boost from parallel processing. Virtually all will push clock rates to new heights.

Sun Microsystems Inc., the leading vendor in the RISC workstation market, is looking to move to the next level with its UltraSparc III. The high-performance chip, due out in about a year, is expected to operate at 600 MHz or more, a speed most workstation designers would have considered impossible just a few years ago.

Compaq Computer Corp., with its newly acquired resources from the former Digital Equipment Corp., is working on the 21364, successor to the 21264 , which now powers the AlphaServer workstation line. The new processor will feature an integrated Level 2 cache, a memory controller and a network interface, all on-chip. Much like the Merced, it will be targeted for multiprocessor designs.

Two RISC workstation vendors have already introduced their latest processor incarnations.

In May, Hewlett-Packard Co. brought to market a new line of Unix workstations based on its latest PA-8500 processor. Although HP plans to move its products to the Merced processor over the long term, the company is still developing its homegrown PA-RISC architecture.

The latest chip, available in 360-MHz and 440-MHz versions, accelerates performance by adding a 1.5M on-chip Level 1 cache.

IBM's Power3 processor, which will make its debut this spring in the RS/6000 43P workstation, features a superscalar architecture that includes eight instruction sets. In the meantime IBM reportedly is working on another processor that will squeeze more than one PowerPC core onto the same chip. Like the new Compaq chip, the so-called GigaProcessor will add a large memory cache, a memory controller and a network interface on-board.

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