Two relatively obscure clauses in its license agreement with Rambus Inc. have resulted in Intel Corp. being barred from developing PC core-logic chipsets that support double-data-rate SDRAM.
Industry sources said the little-known prohibition might explain why Intel last month struck licensing deals with Taiwan's Via Technologies Inc. and Silicon Integrated Systems Inc. (SIS) authorizing the companies to make DDR-enabled chipsets for PCs using Pentium III and Celeron microprocessors.
An Intel spokesman agreed that the deal brokered with the independent chip houses could fill the void caused by the company's decision not to make a DDR-equipped chipset of its own, but denied the move was related to the clause--specifically, 9.2(b)(iv and v)--contained in Intel's contract with Rambus.
The agreement, first signed April 29, 1997, allows Rambus to terminate its license with Intel should the chip maker introduce a chipset that supports double-data-rate capabilities in any memory interface other than Direct Rambus DRAM in the 2000-2002 time period.
Specifically, Rambus, a Mountain View, Calif., intellectual property developer, is entitled to void the contract if "Intel communicates to any of the then current top 10 DRAM manufacturers that Intel has plans to support, as the primary DRAM for PC main memory applications for the years 2000, 2001, and 2002, any [n]ew interface other than the [Direct] Rambus [i]nterface."
Also banned from Intel's product road map is support for any non-Rambus DRAM interface that exceeds a bandwidth of 1 Gbyte/s.
Moreover, according to the contract, Rambus can revoke its license if "Intel does not represent [to Rambus] that the [Direct] Rambus DRAM will be the primary DRAM for PC main memory applications for the years 2000, 2001, and 2002."
DDR chipsets are becoming of paramount concern to Intel, since later this year Athlon processors from archrival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. will begin shipping with chipsets that support a bevy of new DDR chips. Blocked from developing its own technology, Intel has been forced to rely on third-party independents to provide it with next-generation SDRAM-enabled logic-memory controllers that compete with AMD, according to industry observers.
Intel in June was able to introduce its 815 series chipset which supports 133-MHz SDRAM, because according to its contract, the company is entitled to make so-called evolutionary changes to the existing main memory interfaces on its chipsets. Even so, the 815 is viewed as a powerful successor to the widely popular Intel 440BX chipset, and is thought by some analysts to be capable of deterring the industry's transition to Direct RDRAM in the mainstream desktop-PC market.
Another independent core-logic chipset maker, ServerWorks Inc., Santa Clara, Calif., is making DDR chipsets for Intel's Foster and McKinley processors for next-generation servers. It was unclear whether Intel's Rambus license exempts servers from the DDR prohibition or considers them to be a class of PC.
In the desktop space, the market will be watching closely what approach Intel takes toward offering DDR support for its upcoming Willamette desktop processor. The company so far has been adamant that the Willamette will use only the Rambus-enabled Tehama chipset. However, rumors have been rife that Intel is quietly developing a DDR-enabled chipset for the new processor, a move that would appear to fall awry of its contractual obligation with Rambus.
Separately, Rambus this week updated its numbers relative to the penetration rate of Direct RDRAM, claiming that more than 100 products using its high-speed memory are now available from PC and consumer-product OEMs. Rambus said this was twice the number of products using its chip following a similar survey of the market conducted in April.
Among the OEMs selling Direct RDRAM-enabled products are Compaq, Dell, IBM, Hewlett Packard, and Sony, according to Rambus.