The market for RISC processors reflects the need for speed

The market for RISC processors reflects the need for speed

SGI's Origin 200 has 8G of RAM and 20T of disk storage. Pricing starts at $17,659 with an R12000 processor.

Not long ago, a processor running at better than 100 MHz was noteworthy. Today that's considered a sluggard's pace.

Although processor clock speed is only one indication of system performance, vendors of RISC processors are showing no signs of slowing down as they race to outpace one another.

SGI this year outlined plans to continue to evolve the architecture of processors made by its subsidiary, Mips Technologies Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif.

Despite the company's decision to realign itself to develop systems based on Intel Corp. processors, including eventual support for the Intel Merced processor, SGI announced that next year it will debut the R14000, a processor in the Mips line that will take the architecture up to 450 MHz.

The Mips R12000 currently runs at 350 MHz, with a new 390-MHz version due before the end of the year.

SGI plans to follow up in 2001 with the R16000, which will reach the 600- to 800-MHz range and double the current internal instruction and data caches.

Not to be outdone, IBM Corp. is continuing its focus on the PowerPC architecture with the Power4, a chip expected to reach gigahertz speeds.

Due out next year, the Gigaprocessor will pack several PowerPC processors onto the same chip and add a full memory and input/output subsystem. At about the same time, Unix server market leader Sun Microsystems Inc. is expected to announced its UltraSparc III, running at 600 MHz or higher.

Hewlett-Packard's K-Class server can be scaled up to 8G of RAM and 30T of disk storage. Its price starts at $79,900.

For the holidays

At Compaq Computer Corp., development continues on the Alpha, what many chip architects consider the most elegant 64-bit processor design. The EV-7, due out in December, reportedly will support clock speeds in excess of 1 GHz and will include 1.5M of integrated Level 2 cache.

To support large-scale multiprocessing and high-availability systems, the chip will add a 6-gigabyte/sec direct RAMbus memory controller, a 3-gigabyte/sec I/O interface and a direct processor-to-processor interface.

The big concern for RISC server vendors is how far down the road they will continue to support their processor architectures.

As Intel processors take a bigger bite out of the midrange server market and RISC systems are increasingly confined to a shrinking niche at the high end, analysts are beginning to question how long vendors will be able to afford the massive investments required to continue development of their processor architectures.

Some of the leading RISC vendors already have announced their intentions to end further development. For example, Hewlett-Packard Co., which plans to build systems based on Merced's IA-64 architecture, has said it will halt work on its PA-RISC chip by 2002.

For information technology managers investing in RISC servers today, the question is: Which vendors will follow in HP's footsteps?

'John H. Mayer


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