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Via Nano co-creator dishes on CPU technologies

Glenn Henry, a former IBM fellow and Dell CTO, discusses the lower-power, low-cost philosophy of his company's new Via Nano chip and on competing with big guys AMD and Intel.

When Dell said it would offer Via Technologies' Via Nano chips in servers, questions about this non-Intel, non-AMD chip vendor arose. Who are these guys, anyway?

For more on server chips:
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As it turns out, the Via Nano was developed by Centaur Technology, an Austin, Texas- based subsidiary of Taiwanese chip maker Via Technologies Inc. Centaur is small, with 101 employees including the 35 engineers who designed and launched the new low-power chip in just four years.

The company is led by Glenn Henry, a former IBM fellow and Dell Inc. chief technology officer who launched Centaur in 1995 with other other Dell defectors that shared his vision for lower-cost, lower-power x86 chips.

"When I was at Dell, I noticed the cheapest chip Intel would sell us was $150 -- and they thought they were doing a great thing by offering us that deal. All of the options were expensive back then," Henry said. "So I started a company to design something different -- something that had x86 instruction sets, low power and low price."

Centaur taks on AMD and Intel on power, price
The company shipped its first product in 1997, and most sales have been overseas in countries where price and performance have long been a concern. "Up until about five years ago, low power wasn't a big deal in the U.S., and neither was low cost, so most of our parts have been sold outside the U.S.," Henry said. "For instance, HP and IBM use our chips in things like notebooks and cash registers in places like the former Soviet Union and India."

Server power and price are major concerns in the U.S. now.

But power and price are major concerns in the U.S. now, and Dell's adoption of the Via Nano for its XS11-VX8 server marks the first big score for Centaur in the U.S. server market. The Dell Xs11-VX8 server with Via Nano single-core 65 nanometer chip runs at 20 to 29 watts per server at full load and costs about $400.

With a nod from Dell, Henry expects Intel and AMD to come up with chips to compete with the Via Nano, especially efficient chips are en vogue.

"Five years ago, all you heard from Intel was high megahertz, and somewhere along the way they got religion on power, and so did AMD. But Intel's No. 1 criteria has always been to bring more performance and speed to the table, and because of that, their parts use more power," Henry said.

But while Intel and AMD have reduced their power consumption levels, they are also very sensitive to speed and performance, so that limits how low they can go, Henry said. "AMD can't be lower power and be slower than Intel; they won't be able to win, because the top performers are the ones who always get the headlines," he said.

Henry doesn't care to compete with Intel and AMD on performance though. Instead, he wants Centaur to be synonymous with low power and low cost.

"Intel and AMD parts are a lot faster than ours, but also much hotter and very expensive. We took a different approach because we knew we couldn't beat Intel at their own game -- and I don't think AMD can do that either. … So we had to come up with something different," Henry said.

"We know power is a big deal, as is heat removal. So our focus is, if you want the fastest, don't come to us, but if you want really good power and cost per performance, come to us."

Via Nano design, development
The 65-nanometer Via Nano chip, code-named "Isaiah," offers up to four times better performance than the previous-generation chip, the Via C7, which is often embedded in notebooks and mobile devices.

"The [Via C7 chips] are very efficient in that they are small and don't use a lot of power, but we couldn't squeeze any more performance out of that platform, so we decided to design something different -- a clean-sheet design," Henry said.

One of the most significant differences between the C7 and Nano is the Nano's use of super-scalar out-of-order execution. That technology enables the chip to execute instructions out of order instead of waiting for data to be delivered in order, Henry said. This capability stands in contrast to the Via C7 and Intel's Atom, which use in-order design.

The Nano is upgrade-compatible with previous-generation Via C7 processors but can't be interchanged with Intel or AMD chips. But that's alright with Henry. Nano chips are not designed to compete with the high-end chips, and if necessary, it is fairly simple to switch out a motherboard to accommodate a new type of chip.

The Via Nano chips are often compared to Intel's Atom chips, but Henry says there are many dissimilarities. "We are better than the Intel Atom. Yes, it is low-power low-cost chip, like us, but it uses in-order design, it doesn't have 64-bit or NX bit. Our part is fully functional for servers and uses out of order execution, so it is a lot faster."

While this may be true, servers haven't been Centaur's focus, and still aren't. In fact, Henry said he doesn't know a whole lot about the enterprise server space.

"The [Nano] is really designed for mobile apps, but it turns out that its characteristics are attractive to some data centers," he said. "We don't know a lot about data centers, but we know we have a part that people need. It isn't the fastest, but it is very compact and offers lowpower, high function and good performance at a very low cost."

He would like to see other server vendors adopt the Via Nano for their systems, but didn't confirm whether deals are in process.

Small team thinks big
The engineering team at Centaur, including Henry who is in the trenches writing code for the chips, finished the new Nano architecture in four years, working on the chip full time for about two of those years.

both despite and because of its small size, tthe company pumps out new technologies quickly; it is a free-thinking environment devoid of the bureaucracies that slow down development processes, he said.

"I have been involved with high-tech design for 40 years now -- literally, and it is embarrassing -- so I have had the opportunity to see things run different ways," Henry said. "I believe firmly that if you hire the right people, you can create things that it takes a whole department at IBM to create and do it fast because the communication lines are simple."

This strategy to outmaneuver the big guys was first relayed to Henry by a 23-year-old Michael Dell when Henry worked at that company. The idea stuck. "Back when Dell's development department consisted of only six people, Michael said they were going to beat Compaq and they were going to do it by costing less than they do and [introducing products] faster than they are. Being small, they could move quickly, and that worked for them."

While Dell didn't stay small, Henry has every intention of keeping Centaur that way and continues to focus on its core business: building low-power processors with good performance, a lot of functionality and at a lower cost than the big guys.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

And check out our data center blogs: Server Farming, Mainframe Propellerhead and Data Center Facilities Pro


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