Austin, Texas Competition stepped up a notch or two in the embedded X86 and PowerPC processor markets last week, and already the brickbats are flying.
Advanced Micro Devices Inc. said it would begin selling embedded processors based on its Athlon architecture, prompting one competitor to claim that AMD was merely trying to sell off "a warehouse full of old Durons" an earlier-generation Athlon line to the embedded market.
Separately, Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (San Diego) has set up an embedded PowerPC division here that is headed by several former managers of Motorola Inc.'s PowerPC program. AMCC, which bought IBM Corp.'s 400 series PowerPC assets in mid-April for $227 million, will likely compete against Motorola in the PowerPC segment, including data processing, where Motorola's PowerQuicc line dominates, said Gartner Dataquest analyst Tom Starnes.
The AMCC thrust adds a third leg to the PowerPC market, now divided roughly equally between IBM and Motorola's Freescale Semiconductor operation.
AMD bought Alchemy Semiconductor Inc. and its MIPS architecture processors three years ago and the Geode line of integrated X86 products from National Semiconductor Corp. last year. It rolled those assets into its personal connectivity solutions group (PCSG), here.
Last week, PCSG renamed the products acquired from National as the Geode GX line and said it would also begin selling a Geode NX line, based on the Athlon architecture. The operation also said it had contracted with a benchmarking organization, Synchromesh Computing, to develop a suite of 11 benchmarks aimed at downgrading the importance of a processor's megahertz measure and emphasizing its overall performance, including arithmetic, floating-point and graphics processing; cache size; and internal bus.
While AMD said it invites other X86 vendors to use the benchmarks, Centaur Technology president Glenn Henry called them "artificial," saying they are skewed to the AMD architecture's strong points. Centaur is a division of Taiwanese processor maker Via Technologies Inc.
Alan Weiss, CEO of Synchromesh, said the benchmarks emphasize the importance of processing elements other than the CPU. Weiss also runs the benchmarking lab that certifies processor performance scores for the Embedded Microprocessor Benchmark Consortium. Synchromesh was set up to do competitive analysis and other commercial benchmarks that lie outside EEMBC's focus on processor, rather than system-level, performance, said Weiss, who defended his benchmarks as "objective and neutral."
Centaur's Henry also claimed that AMD's NX products are "nothing more than rebranded Duron" processors, referring to the code name of 32-bit Athlons sold earlier by AMD. "AMD gets instant publicity by saying it has these NX processors to sell, but . . . these are just older, 32-bit Athlons that AMD wants to get rid of while it pushes its 64-bit technology to the personal computer market," he said.
Asked whether AMD had done a speed- and power-bin sort of its Athlon parts to come up with chips that would meet the thermal requirements of the embedded market, PCSG marketing director Erik Salo asserted that the company had modified its process technology to come up with products that consume less power. He would not specify the changes, calling them proprietary. AMD also "reduced the voltage and frequency to hit a power consumption target of 6 watts average and less than 10 watts maximum," Salo said.
The NX products are made at AMD's fab in Dresden, Germany, though the company is considering producing the parts at foundry United Microelectronics Corp. The Geode GX processors are fabbed by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.
Analysts said the industry will benefit from stepped-up competition in the X86 embedded arena, where chips must run cool enough to fit into systems that can't accommodate the fans found in PCs.
Excluding the Microsoft Xbox, the embedded X86 market in 2003 amounted to 13 million units, or about $30 million, said Tony Massimini, processor analyst at Semico Research Corp. (Phoenix). Centaur does well in the fast-growing, low-cost ($200 to $400 per unit) PC markets in China and India, while the Geode GX has a large share of the market for thin clients in corporate computing.
Massimini said the embedded-X86 fervor is rooted in new market segments that seek the software compatibility possible with PC-based applications. Point-of-sale equipment, automated teller machines, intelligent kiosks, industrial computing, set-top boxes and other "digital home connectivity systems" all are primed to accept the architecture, he said.
Intel Corp. has long had an embedded-X86 operation but "has not gone out of its way to develop the X86 embedded business, because there is not the same return as from the PC market," Massimini said. "Intel is more interested in promoting the Xscale architecture for portable products."
Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts (Tempe, Ariz.), said AMD "is going to war" with a renewed interest in embedded, evidenced by its benchmarking initiative, aggressive marketing push and, most important, products that consume less power. The slower Geode GX processors consume less than 1 watt and thus may give "the RISC architectures, such as MIPS and ARM, a run for their money in the portable space," he said.
And if the NX power numbers are accurate, the Geode NX parts "run at less than half the power of comparable Pentiums from Intel," Strauss said.
While AMD and Centaur square off on the X86, AMCC will look to compete with Motorola's PowerPC operation in the data communications market.
The company's new embedded products group here is run by several former Motorola managers with PowerPC experience. Brian Wilkie, a former Motorola vice president, is AMCC's vice president in charge of the embedded products group; Mark McDermott, former head of the Motorola-IBM-Apple Somerset design center here, will run the engineering operation; and Sam Fuller, most recently the head of the RapidIO Association, will head marketing.
AMCC has an architectural license with IBM that will let the embedded products group create products based on acquired technology, said Thomas Tullie, AMCC's senior vice president of sales and WAN business. The standard products in the 400 series that AMCC picked up from IBM, including the 403, 405 and 440 processors, brought IBM an estimated $55 million in revenue in 2003.
Wilkie said AMCC's WAN operation and storage products group will use the PowerPC assets to attack vertical markets, while the embedded products group "will go after customers in horizontal markets," including control plane platforms.