In a marked strategy shift, Micron Technology Inc. said it now plans to sell its Samurai core-logic chipset under its own label to support the Athlon microprocessor from Advanced Micro Devices Inc.
The double-data-rate SDRAM-enabled chipset will be made by an unidentified foundry that, in an ironic twist, has a technology cross-licensing agreement with Intel Corp. Industry sources said that in addition to supporting AMD's Athlon chips, Micron will authorize the foundry to brand, market, and sell the Samurai under its own label to connect with Intel's desktop Pentium processors. Executives at Micron, Boise, Idaho, last week declined to comment on that aspect of the company's new thrust.
Micron now sees a large potential market for DDR-enabled chipsets, said Dean Klein, vice president of the company's integrated products group. The move is a major departure for the company. On several occasions, Micron said it had no plans to enter the chipset business, maintaining that it would merely promote the Samurai chipset architecture to prime the market for DDR SDRAM.
That strategy did an about-face, when Klein said this week that Micron is upbeat about the Samurai's ability to generate appreciable merchant-market sales by supporting the Athlon desktop processor. "We see a high volume for an Athlon DDR chipset," he said. "Our chipset road map includes Athlon in a big way."
Specifically, Micron's Samurai would support sockets in the Athlon market alongside AMD's upcoming 760 DDR chipset, which is targeted at desktops and servers using two-way processors, Klein said.
Other DDR-enabled Athlon chipsets are expected to roll out from Acer Laboratories, SiS, and Via Technologies.Micron's Samurai strategy flies in the face of Intel's processor/chipset product plans, and would seem particularly galling given that Intel in 1998 invested $500 million in Micron to ensure an ample supply of high-speed DRAM to support the Pentium III family.
Intel has eschewed DDR-enabled chipsets for its desktop processors, and is instead promoting rival Direct Rambus DRAM and associated chipsets. By contrast, AMD has jumped on the DDR SDRAM bandwagon, and Micron's Samurai chipset could help the company compete against Intel in high-performance PCs and workstations.
Asked why Micron was allying itself with AMD, Klein replied, "The only reason is that AMD was extremely interested and wanted us to provide the Samurai chipset for Athlon. Intel didn't want to discuss our help with Samurai."
Micron's merchant-market focus is especially timely for AMD, which earlier this week was informed that Athlon chipset developer HotRail Inc. was leaving the PC space for the communications sector. That decision prompted HotRail to drop its development of an eight-way Athlon chipset.
Klein declined to comment on HotRail's market exit, but sources said high-performance Athlon servers could connect any number of processors to an equal number of Samurai chipsets. The Athlon architecture is able to use individual 266-MHz processor bus lines, each of which talks to its own chipset, as opposed to Intel's architecture, which uses a shared processor-bus line.
Klein refrained from setting a timetable for mass marketing of the Samurai. "We're currently working fast and furiously on an Athlon DDR chipset solution," he said. "We'll be a player in the Athlon market."
While Micron is eyeing opportunities in the Athlon arena, the company's foundry partner hopes to tie the Samurai to Intel's Pentium III, according to sources. That could pose a threat to the chip giant, which has steadfastly refused to develop a DDR-enabled chipset for its high-end processor.
According to observers, a maverick Pentium III chipset supplier could undermine Intel's efforts to jump-start support for Direct RDRAM, and would open a second market front against the company, which already is bracing for rival lower-end chipsets that support DDR SDRAM from Taiwanese IC makers Acer, SiS, and Via.
Micron last November even discussed licensing Samurai to Via, which showed the chipset at Fall Comdex. However, Via has since decided the Samurai was aimed at a market far above the Taiwan company's core business in economy and value-line PCs. Instead, Via resurrected a prior DDR design of its own that it had shelved, and next month is expected to sample the chipset for low- to midrange Intel processors.