Processor startup angles for efficiency

Fabless semiconductor startup, Santa Clara, Calif.-based P.A. Semi, has emerged from two years of stealth development to offer energy efficient chips on IBM's Power architecture.

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There's a new player in the fabless semiconductor space, Santa Clara, Calif.-based P.A. Semi. The company was formed in 2003 by processor industry veterans and focused its design efforts on energy efficiency.

The team at P.A. Semi licensed IBM's Power chip architecture and plans to design processors for everything from embedded chips to supercomputing clusters. The company has no plans to compete head to head with Intel or Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) in the x86 space and will focus on Power for the foreseeable future.

P.A. Semi's first take on the Power design, the PWRficient chip, is a dual-core chip that the company said will run at 2 GHz while consuming between just 5-13 watts on a typical software load. For comparison, Intel's latest dual-core is reported to deliver 2.8 GHz while consuming up to 150 watts.

Considering the importance of energy efficiency in the data center of late, performance per watt could have a lot of play with IT pros. Analysts are already saying that if P.A. Semi hits the numbers it's reporting, the company could shake up the entire processor industry, with wider implications than the Power architecture.

"You have to have a goal to hit a low power point. There's no magic bullet." Jim Keller, vice president of engineering at P.A. Semi said. "It seems like AMD and Intel have started focusing on power lately. But the current processors from Intel are designed for performance, and it's harder to reduce power from there."

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Aside from publicizing the incredible performance per watt numbers, P.A. Semi has played its cards very close to the vest. When asked if IBM would buy these high performance chips from P.A. Semi for its own machines, Keller would not confirm or rule out the possibility.

But Charles King, principal analyst with Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research, said if P.A. Semi was successful, IBM would likely find a place for it in its server line.

"It's the sort of thing that would work very well in IBM's BladeCenter offerings," King said. "IBM already has chips from Power, Intel and AMD, so bringing in a new flavor of Power processor wouldn't be out of the question."

But don't expect IBM to start powering its iSeries and pSeries lines with P.A. Semi's chips. Those IBM platforms use the Power5 chip, which King said is much more complex than the current designs P.A. Semi is proposing.

Even if IBM doesn't opt to use P.A. Semi chips in its hardware, expanding the Power processor's availability is good for IBM. "IBM recognized it didn't have the time to exploit the Power architecture in every possible way," King said. "Taking Power in directions IBM isn't pursuing is going to be good for IBM."

P.A. Semi expects to roll out sample chips in the third quarter 2006.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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