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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Start-up plans new energy-efficient processor

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based start-up this week is set to unveil its plans for a microprocessor based around the Power architecture--the same architecture behind chips in IBM servers and current Macs--that consumes only a fraction of the energy of existing chips.

The company's first so-called PWRficient chip will feature two processing cores, run at 2GHz and consume on average about 5 watts, thanks to an emphasis on integration and circuit design. At a maximum, it will consume 25 watts, far less than the single-core Power chips that can hit 90 watts found on the market today.

The power savings are even greater when compared with an Intel Xeon or Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron, said P.A. Semi CEO Dan Dobberpuhl. Over three years, a 4,000-node cluster of PWRficient-based servers might consume $360,000 in electricity--an equivalent bank of Xeons and Opterons would chew up $3 million and $3.5 million worth of electricity, respectively, P.A. Semi claims.

"It's like a factor of 10 from today's technology," Dobberpuhl said.

The PWRficient actually won't come out for two years, so it's hard to predict exactly how it will stack up against the competition. Landing customers in the notoriously difficult market won't be easy either. But analysts say the ideas represented in the design are worth watching.

"The chip definitely looks good from a power standpoint," said Linley Gwennap, an analyst at the Linley Group. "But will they be the low-power leader? It is hard to say."

Just as important, the chip has been designed in a way that will make it easy to adapt to a wide variety of devices. Different versions of the PWRficient will contain anywhere from one to eight cores. The chip also can be attached to a broader-than-normal number of input-output devices.

P.A. Semi, in fact, plans to pitch different configurations of the chip to network equipment makers, consumer electronics manufacturers and server makers. The company is expected to publicly showcase its plans at the Fall Processor Forum in San Jose, Calif., this week.

Although new, the people behind the company have played major roles in the industry for decades. While at Digital Equipment Corp., Dobberpuhl oversaw the development of the Alpha chip for servers and the StrongARM processor for handhelds. StrongARM, which was sold to Intel and became the foundation for the XScale family, was one of the first high-performance energy-efficient processors, Dobberpuhl pointed out.

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