SANTA CLARA, Calif. ( ChipWire) -- Intel Corp. will officially roll out its Pentium 4 processor on Monday, promising the device will have the steepest sales ramp of any microprocessor in its history. But at least for its first six months, the chip will be tied solely to the controversial Rambus memory architecture, a fact that several analysts and at least one DRAM maker said looms as a question mark over the lofty ambitions of the world's biggest chip maker.
While Intel and Samsung Semiconductor -- the latter claims to be the world's biggest supplier of Rambus parts -- remain confident of success, other industry watchers wonder whether Rambus DRAMs will be available in adequate supply and at a reasonable enough cost to support the high-profile launch. Meanwhile, the issue of if and when Intel will permit third parties to support its CPU with chip sets built for alternative SDRAM and double-data-rate (DDR) memories still goes unanswered.
Intel expects the Pentium 4 "will have the most aggressive ramp of any microarchitecture generation by far," said Jeff Austin, marketing manager in the desktop products group at Intel in Santa Clara. Intel expects the P4 will take over the lead from the Pentium III in terms of volume sales sometime in the middle of the first half of 2002.
Austin dismissed any worries that nagging questions of RDRAM cost and availability would hamper the rollout of the CPU and systems based on it. "There are five DRAM makers producing Rambus DRAMs today, so we're pretty comfortable," he said.
An Intel spokesman added that the company has created an OEM program to make sure PC makers can get enough Rambus parts at a reasonable price. However, he would not disclose details of that program.
Samsung said it can match any ramp Intel puts in place for the Pentium 4, and still believes RDRAM technology could become the mainstay for PC main memory as CPUs surpass speeds of 1 GHz, according to a spokesman. Samsung says it welcomes the Pentium launch, since it will spur Rambus parts production.
"We're already delivering Rambus chips in the millions," the spokesman said. "For us the Pentium 4 plan is good news."
Given the South Korean company's familiarity with the technology, Samsung says it is confident there are no showstopper technical issues to impair production. The company has already shipped 72-Mbit and 128-Mbit memories and samples of 64-Mbyte and 128-Mbyte Rambus-in-line memory modules, all of which it says operate "flawlessly" in the PC environment. It also believes its second-generation Rambus DRAM with 0.18-micron process technology is smaller and more price-competitive than the first-generation version. Samsung says it is planning 256-Mbit and 288-Mbit RDRAM introductions at an undisclosed time.
But lingering doubts remain in the industry over the Rambus technology. "Intel has said and still says that there would be enough Rambus parts to support a Pentium 4 rollout, but we at Semico find that very hard to believe," said Tony Massimini, chief of technology for research firm Semico Research. "We believe there will not be enough supply for the P4 to be exclusively reliant on Rambus. Our own assumption is that a strong P4 rollout will be dependent on third-party chip set support."
Intel is keeping mum on whether it will license the technology behind its P4 system bus to core logic makers to enable such support, however. Indeed, it is even somewhat guarded on details of its own chip set plans.
The Pentium 4, initially released at 1.4- and 1.5-GHz speeds, uses a 3.2-Gbyte/second system bus that was designed to align with the same bandwidth on two Rambus channels. Intel's 850 chip set the only core logic initially available for the processor supports that 3.2-Gbyte/s link, creating what Intel's Austin called "a balanced platform.
"RDRAM will continue to be our high-performance memory solution for the foreseeable future," said Austin. "DDR does not have the road map to the performance RDRAM will deliver." Austin maintained that double-data-rate DRAM tops out at throughput of about 2 Gbytes/second.
But several analysts and Steve Appleton, chief executive officer of memory maker Micron Technology Inc. of Boise, Idaho, predicted DDR could become the mainstream technology of choice in 2002. RDRAMs will never break out of a fairly narrow 10% of the memory market, according to this group.
Just as Intel unwrapping its P4, Micron is rolling out a new 256-Mbit DDR part revved to 266 MHz.
Intel will, in fact, support DDR for the Pentium 4, but will not say when. "In the second half of 2001 we will introduce a chip set supporting SDRAM and the Pentium 4. That will get us more into mainstream price points," Austin said. "We will support DDR in a future version of that chip set, but we don't have a specific time frame for when that would be available."
Although no one is publicly talking about having a license to the P4 system bus, Via Technologies Inc., which competes with Intel in both chip sets and low-end processors, claims it will roll chip sets supporting both the P4 and DDR memories.
"The reality is, for Rambus, it's almost 'game over'," said Via's marketing director, Richard Brown. "We never believed Rambus made sense. The cost, the difficulties of building a new infrastructure and the fact that Rambus offers no real performance benefits, I think, makes the price you have to pay for it not worth it."
From a performance standpoint, analyst Massimini wondered if Rambus has an edge over other next-generation memory technologies. "The benchmarks we've seen did not show a performance advantage," he said. "If it's equal in performance, then what about price and power consumption and availability?"
After recent missteps including a problem with the 1.13-GHz Pentium III, Intel sees a smooth P4 launch as vital to reasserting its standing, said Mario Morales, vice president of International Data Corp. Calling the ramp "aggressive," Morales said Intel was committing itself to breaking out from manufacturing hundreds of thousands of parts during the first quarter of next year to a steep ramp in the second half of 2001 when its own DDR parts will likely become available.
Saying that IDC believes Rambus memory will be "relegated to the performance market," Morales said DDR looks to be inherently easier to produce. "As fast as DDR will ramp, it will be faster than Rambus," he said.
Palomino rides in
The Pentium 4 won't have the market to itself for long. Advanced Micro Devices Inc. plans to release in mid-2001 an upgraded Athlon processor that works with DDR memory. Code-named Palomino, the processor will be at least able to match current Pentium 4 speeds.
Meanwhile, as part of its push to promote DDR memory technology, Micron Technology on Monday will begin sampling its 2.5-volt, 266-MHz, 256-Mbit DDR components, in a release it hopes will kick off a steep ramp of DDR technology. Manufactured on a 0.13-micron process technology, the parts function at clock rates of 133 MHz and provide system-level bandwidth of 2.1 Gbytes/s, satisfying the requirements of the PC2100 specification.
The memory is available in a 16-M x 16 configuration now. A 64-M x 4 and a 32-M x 8 configuration will follow later this quarter, the company said. DDR and SDRAM module samples will be available the next quarter, Micron said.
Micron firmly believes that Rambus will remain a high-end, niche player, Micron CEO Appleton told EE Times, adding that no customers have asked the memory maker to build RDRAM parts. Appleton predicted that RDRAM share will at most grow to 10% of the total memory market as DDR penetrates the mainstream PC market in 2002.
Appleton predicted that DDR would capture 10-to-15% of the memory market next year. DDR should climb to 23 % in 2002, or roughly $9 billion, said Brian Matas, memory analyst with IC Insights. Rambus will win 10-to-12% that year, he added.
Matas predicted that Intel will be looking to open up DDR support as soon as it has fulfilled undisclosed contractual obligations to Rambus Inc. in Mountain View, Calif. "They Intel can make it work . . . but ultimately they want to open the P4 to as many openly supported memory architectures as possible," Matas said. "They are not going to sit back and allow their market share to be eaten by AMD and Micron."
Since last spring, Intel's motherboard and systems group has been selling two Pentium III-class systems that use a single channel of Rambus memory. To date those boards and systems have not been big sellers relative to the group's non-Rambus-based products, said Tom Matson, director of boards and systems marketing for Intel. The group generally does not provide memory with its boards, he added.
For its part, Rambus said the steep Pentium 4 ramp should be smooth sailing. "We have no technology problems I mean, our technology works. It's a question of aligning the suppliers and the prices," said Avo Kanadjian, vice president of marketing for Rambus. "We think the supply chain issues should have been addressed as they are being addressed now, except earlier."
Intel plans to push its CPUs forward with a fresh shot of process technology late next year. The company will roll out its 0.13-micron process technology in the third quarter of 2001, initially on an undisclosed Pentium III processor. The process would also be applied to a version of the Pentium 4 that will ship before the end of next year, Austin said.
Additional reporting by Rick Merritt.