Intel Corp. last week threw the fate of Direct Rambus DRAM to the open market, acknowledging that OEM interest in rival PC133 and PC266 double-data-rate SDRAM is now too great to ignore.
The policy shift means that instead of supporting non-Rambus memory on a interim-and reluctant-basis, Intel will give greater weight to each of the three emerging DRAM architectures.
The company said it will continue to support Direct RDRAM aggressively, and will introduce the twice-delayed Intel 820, or Camino, chipset before the end of the year to support the high-speed Rambus interface in PC desktops. However, Paul Otellini, executive vice president and general manager of Intel's Architecture Business Group, told investment analysts last week that the company is "working on a number of new chipsets ... and investigating other alternatives."
While Otellini didn't elaborate, an Intel spokesman last week said the company "is working to give customers options on types of memory. We are working on new [chipset] technologies at the request of our customers and will meet their needs."
The spokesman confirmed that Intel's options include chipsets for PC133 and a DDR-based chipset for servers.
Indeed, sources said Intel has accelerated the launch of its PC133 chipset-perhaps to as early as January-and will follow quickly with a DDR-enabled device for servers that could compete with the high-end Intel 840 chipset launched last week.
Intel has also changed course by keeping the venerable 440BX chipset in full production through 2000, contrary to earlier roadmaps that indicated the company would phase out the BX line and its corresponding PC100 SDRAM interface early next year.
The anticipated broadening of Intel's chipset lineup is already being reflected in the diversity of product plans under way at major computer makers.
IBM Corp. is a prime example. Big Blue's IntelliStation Windows NT workstation line will shift completely from SDRAM to Direct Rambus using both Intel 820 and 840 chipsets, said IBM product manager Marco Rengan.
An IBM model ZPro IntelliStation using the Intel Carmel 840 chipset and PC600 Direct RDRAM was shown last week, and other models using either PC600 or PC800 Direct RDRAM will be ready for delivery by the end of the year, according to Rengan.
IBM's desktop-PC line, on the other hand, is solidly behind PC133 SDRAM, and will incorporate core logic from Via Technologies Inc., said Howard Locker, manager of desktop strategic technology at the Armonk, N.Y.-based company.
Locker viewed Direct Rambus as too expensive for use in value and midrange PCs. When IBM's desktops upgrade to a new memory, it will be to a PC133 interface using Virtual Channel Memory-the DRAM core developed by NEC Electronics Inc. and since adopted by Hyundai MicroElectronics Co. Ltd. and Infineon Technologies AG.
Meanwhile, an IBM spokesman confirmed that the company's server line will transition next year to PC266 DDR SDRAM, spurning Direct Rambus and the Intel 840 chipset introduced last week for that market.
Bob Merritt, an analyst at Semico Research Corp. in Redwood City, Calif., said virtually all servers introduced next year will use DDR memory supported by chipsets from either San Jose-based Reliance Computer Corp. or an upcoming DDR-based chipset from Intel.
The success of rival IC makers such as Reliance and Via in eroding Intel's market lead in core-logic chipsets is perhaps best reflected in the company's most faithful customer: Dell Computer Corp.
After the delay in September of the Rambus-enabled Intel 820 chipset, Dell tabled the introduction of its high-end B-series Dimension PCs. Now that Intel is said to be back on track with a November or December chipset launch, Dell is bringing its platform back to the fore.
The Round Rock, Texas, computer maker's workstation group, however, continues to use the older 440BX chipset and PC100 memory as it take a cautious look at an eventual transition to Rambus.
What's more, Dell's server group will bypass the Intel 840/Direct Rambus tandem entirely and will instead connect Intel's new Coppermine Pentium processors with PC133 SDRAM using a Reliance Computer core-logic device.
The about-face marks the first time Dell has turned to a non-Intel supplier for chipset support. A Dell spokesman added that the company is looking at servers using DDR memory but has made no decision yet.
Other PC makers are equally divided over which chipsets and memory to use in their respective desktop, workstation, and server platforms.
Depending on the performance level desired, the menu now includes the Intel 810E with integrated graphics functions, the Rambus-friendly Intel 820 or 840 chipsets, PC133 chipsets from Via, Reliance, and up-and-comers Acer Laboratories Inc. and Silicon Integrated Systems Inc., or the Intel 440BX.
The decision to extend the life of the 440BX, combined with other signs of diversity within the core-logic and memory markets, paint a different picture relative to the proliferation of Rambus technology, whose future, it seems, rests more firmly than ever in the product plans of OEMs.