SAN JOSE, Calif. This year could be pivotal in the battle over DRAM architectures as PC-133, double-data-rate and Rambus memories all make their way into the hands of PC vendors, which are as anxious as their memory and chip set suppliers to learn the market's preferences.
Via Technologies Inc. (Fremont, Calif.), which hopes to replay its success with PC-133-enabled chip sets, is promoting the use of double-data rate (DDR) DRAMs for desktop, server and notebook systems this year. Intel Corp. (Santa Clara, Calif.) should come out with its first PC chip set to support DDR by early 2002, a spokesman said.
At the same time, Intel is expected to breathe new life into PC-133 with its forthcoming Brookdale chip set, which is already in the hands of some motherboard makers, several sources said. An Intel spokesman said Brookdale will be out by the second half for Pentium 4 systems.
Meanwhile, suppliers of Rambus DRAM are reporting high demand from major PC OEMs, although they are only cautiously upping production as they evaluate demand for PC-133 and DDR. Though plagued by high manufacturing costs, RDRAM is a concept that can't be ignored over the long haul, some observers say.
The memory mix is changing against a backdrop of slowing demand, making it harder for DRAM vendors to take risks. Few plan to boost wafer output until they move to 300-mm production lines, observers said, though some capacity increases are expected as manufacturers migrate to finer process technologies. For example, Elpida Memory Inc., the Hitachi-NEC joint venture, will keep its capacity at about 90,000 wafers per month until next year, when it ramps up a 0.13-micron, 300-mm wafer fab in Japan.
As the semiconductor industry braces for another downturn, the DRAM market is expected to grow 18.5 percent in 2001, to $33.8 billion, according to Semico Research Corp. But DRAM makers face several challenges.
The market saw a shift in application focus in 2000, when the majority of DRAM shipments ended up in midprice PCs, showing that high-end PCs are no longer driving consumption. That was partly due to the scant availability of broadband connectivity, which is expected to open new applications and drive demand for high-end platforms.
"Without the communications infrastructure in place to give more bandwidth to the PC, the concept and function of the PC stays the same and the growth goes down to the low-performance end of the PC market" said Bob Merritt, an analyst with Semico Research (Redwood City, Calif.).
Chip set vendors said they hope the reluctance to add DRAM production capacity won't dampen DDR output. Taiwan-based chip set makers are trying to spark interest in the DDR memory architecture by seeding the market with new chip sets that support both DDR and today's mainstream SDRAM. Micron Electronics Inc. in the United States and NEC-CI in Europe are shipping boxes now with DDR tied to Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s Athlon processor, but overall few PC makers are shipping DDR in volume, observers said.
Sets in synch
Eric Chang, director of product marketing for Via Technologies, said his company has shipped only about 100,000 DDR-enabled chip sets since last year. That's not from lack of interest, he said, but because the availability of chip sets and DDR DRAMs have been out of synch.
Via hopes to open the floodgates for DDR chip sets this year, offering financial incentives to motherboard makers and sponsoring a conference in Taiwan next month where memory and motherboard makers can meet to discuss DDR.
"Our message to the DRAM vendors is: There will be millions of motherboards in the field. You have to catch up with your supply, otherwise your competitors will," Chang said this past week at the Platform Conference here.
Via believes it has good reason to put so much stock in DDR. In 1999 Via had about 15 percent market share and was struggling against Intel's mighty chip set division. But rather than follow Intel's lead with chip sets supporting Rambus, Via took a gamble and introduced a PC-133 chip set in mid-1999.
That turned out to be the right choice. Market share zoomed last year to what the company estimates to be a market-leading 45 percent. Via hopes to repeat its feat by being an early supplier of chip sets that link with industry-standard DDR DRAMs.
"Intel blew half of its chip set market share by not doing PC-133 and by supporting Rambus," said Semico's Merritt. An Intel spokesman declined to provide the company's market share numbers.
Acer Laboratories Inc. (San Jose, Calif.) was also slow to roll a PC-133-compatible chip set and lost business to Via as a result. It hopes to regain ground with a new line of DDR-enabled chip sets for desktops and notebooks.
Via was "the only one with PC-133," said Fred Leung, associate vice president of sales and marketing at Acer Labs. "We don't want to make the same mistake as before."
While much of the buzz centers on DDR, observers were quick to point out that standard SDRAM will still hold the lion's share of the memory market in 2001. SDRAM provides an evolutionary path to DDR memory: Many manufacturing lines can handle both PC-133 and DDR production simultaneously.
"In many cases, DDR is simply a metal mask option late in the process for PC-133," said Merritt. This is a critical issue in terms of Intel's rollout of the Pentium 4, initially intended to support only RDRAM in PC applications. Intel is working with ServerWorks (Santa Clara) on a DDR chip set for servers that should be ready later this year, but hasn't yet announced a roster of licensees for PC chip sets. Even so, Semico believes that Pentium 4 DDR support will become available fairly quickly for PCs.
Intel is also expected to fuel PC-133 DRAMs when its Brookdale chip set arrives in the second half. If successful, Brookdale could extend the life of PC-133.
Meanwhile, Rambus Inc. is hoping the lull in the DRAM market will spur more memory manufacturers to step up production of RDRAM. Though many top PC makers are shipping systems with Rambus memory, only Samsung, Elpida and Toshiba are now shipping those relatively expensive DRAMs in significant volumes.
Over the next six to nine months, Elpida will boost by 40 percent its shipments of RDRAM, which now makes up about 3 percent of its output, said Jim Sogas, vice president of sales for Elpida (Santa Clara). But the company remains cautious. It intends to gauge demand for SDRAM and DDR as Brookdale and the DDR chip sets from Intel and ServerWorks make their way to market.
"There's definitely a shortage because there are so few suppliers," Sogas said of RDRAM. "Nobody wants to put in wafers and then have to grind them up."
Avo Kanadjian, vice president of worldwide marketing for Rambus (Los Altos, Calif.), said DRAM vendors won't spurn RDRAM much longer. "I'm very confident that between the three RDRAM makers they can motivate other suppliers," he said.
Kanadjian said DDR is mired in compatibility problems, something that PC OEMs don't have to worry about with RDRAMs, because those parts are validated at the component, module and system levels. And he said Brookdale is not designed to meet the bandwidth requirements of the Pentium 4, which Intel originally intended for use with two channels of RDRAM.
Not a showstopper
The subject of DDR compatibility problems is open to debate, however. Systems engineers with AMD said it's possible to mix DDR modules from different vendors. And Semico analyst Merritt said compatibility problems are normal and will not be a showstopper. "I don't see it being a major problem down the road," he said.
But SDRAM and DDR may not be able to match some of the advantages of a protocol-based memory like Rambus, some said. Most observers said the industry will eventually need a narrow, protocol-based DRAM, though some question whether RDRAM in its current form is it.
One advantage of RDRAM, observers said, is that it relies on a fast interface rather than wide I/O, so two channels can be added to a DRAM controller with little consequence. The current Pentium 4 chip set and the Sony Playstation 2, for example, use two Rambus channels with a bandwidth of 1.6 Gbytes/second each.
Adding channels to a DDR DRAM controller is a problem, because standard DRAMs need a lot of I/O. And as chip set makers add functionality like graphics to the north bridge, bond pad spacing is getting so tight that a second DDR interface would be too cumbersome for cost-sensitive PCs, some said.
A more realistic scheme is to up performance with the current 64-bit bus, said Chang of Via. Via is investigating the approach of module maker Kentron Technologies (Wilmington, Mass.), which uses FETs to phase-shift two clocks between DDR devices to deliver 4 bits per clock.
But Acer's Leung said packagers are getting better at squeezing bond pads closer together, making it possible to bolt two DDR interfaces onto a controller. "Everyone in Taiwan is working like a dog on this," he said.
Additional reporting by Jerry Ascierto.