TAIPEI, Taiwan Silicon Integrated Systems Corp. unveiled a PC chip set on Wednesday (July 31) that supports Rambus memory, the market's second chip set to do so. The move should buttress Rambus Inc.'s position in high-end PCs, and possibly help it slip into the PC mainstream.
Rambus hopes SiS' R658 chip set will encourage OEMs, system integrators and motherboard designers to take a fresh look at its technology. Having a second chip-set supplier (after Intel Corp.), especially one that has run a Rambus-in-line memory module (RIMM) validation program to guarantee compatibility among higher-frequency chip modules, is a coup for Los-Altos, Calif.-based Rambus. It also helps SiS establish a reputation as a provider of high-end chip sets.
Until now, Intel's i850 has been the only PC chip set design to support Rambus memory. But Intel's support for Rambus has clearly waned in the last two years, as double-data-rate DRAM has gained in popularity. In its most recent iteration of the chip set, the 850E, Intel did not include official support for higher frequency 1,066-MHz Rambus chips, but the chip set can be overclocked.
That forced Rambus into a more direct, channel-oriented campaign which focused on Taiwan. Intel's decision not to run a validation program for 1,066-MHz Rambus memory showed the vulnerability of the Rambus market, which has needed a second chip-set supplier to show staying power. Frank Fox, a vice president and general manager at Rambus, called the SiSR658 chip set a "huge development" because it is the "first real challenger to the 850."
The SiSR658 supports up to 4 Gbytes of dual-channel 16-bit or 32-bit 800-MHz/1,066-MHz RIMMs as well as single-channel 16-bit RIMMs. If overclocked, the chip set is scalable through 1,200 MHz and 1,333 MHz. It supports Pentium 4 processors using a 400-MHz or 533-MHz front-side bus and AGP 8X. Samples are available now, with mass production scheduled for the fourth quarter.
To meet SiS' challenge, Intel is expected to upgrade support in essence, to add a validation program for high-frequency Rambus chips in September, said Dochan Choi, an engineer at Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., a leading supplier of Rambus memory chips.
Although SiS is initially targeting high-end PCs and workstations, its long-term strategy is to help Rambus establish a beachhead in the mainstream. Currently, that is the turf of DDR DRAM.
Not surprisingly, those with the biggest to gain from Rambus' success say that market perception of the company is changing. "RDRAM has a solid position in high-end PCs and servers. We will see the 1,066-MHz and 32-bit RIMMs help improve the position in this area," said Akira Tsujimoto, memory design manager at Elpida Memory Inc., a supplier of Rambus DRAMs.
Choi said he sees interest in PC1066 growing, too, especially in the clone market. The consumer area is also strong, anchored by Sony's Playstation 2. Then there is still potential in the networking arena, where Rambus has design wins from Intel, Vitesse Semiconductor, Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks whether those translate into successful commercial systems is still unclear.
But Rambus realizes that the bulk of memory volume is driven by PC sales. Third-party chip set makers Via Technologies Inc. and ALi Corp. have no plans to design core logic that supports Rambus memory, so the SiS offering will be crucial if Rambus is to capture more PC market share, especially outside of the high-end. "The original idea was to create it and bring it into the mainstream. If we cannot hit the low-end mainstream, then maybe we can get the high-end mainstream," said Alex Wu, director of the Integrated Products Division at SiS. It won't be an easy task, he acknowledged. "We have a lot of work to do."
Things seem to be off on the right foot. Asustek Computer Inc. and Gigabyte Technology Co. Ltd., two of Taiwan's top-tier motherboard makers, have signed on to support the chip set. Rambus and SiS are busily shopping around reference designs to woo others. In the early days of the chip set, they will highlight its performance to establish a reputation as a high-end solution. After that, they plan to focus on its flexibility, such as its single- and dual-channel support, and pitch it as a value solution for the mainstream.
By delivering peak bandwidth of up to 4.2 Gbytes/second, the R658 matches up well with the Pentium 4's 533-MHz front-side bus. It also handily beats the 2.7-Gbytes/s bandwidth of DDR-333. As clock speeds increase, Rambus hopes system OEMs will see that it provides the better technology. SiS believes it will happen, albeit slowly. "Eventually we want to enlarge the pie," Wu said.
The SiSR658 will cost $39 in sets of 5,000.