ANALYSIS: Rambus headed for workstation niche

By George Lawton, ITworld.com |  Hardware

Although its streamlined bit-moving scheme is of little interest to most computer
buyers, Rambus is front and center when next-generation computing architectures are
under discussion. Until recently, it was thought that Rambus would be a big part of
future computers that used Intel microprocessors. Word of trouble with a low-end Intel
chip known as Timna and a series of chip-related license deals have put Rambus in the
news.

Ultimately, various chipmakers and systems makers will decide what types of computer
land on the desktops and in the computer rooms of IT shops everywhere. At the moment,
it appears that Rambus, once seemingly destined for wide use, may be relegated to the
high-end workstation market, leaving the low-end desktop and all-important server
markets to alternative memory architectures.

As most buyers know, CPUs have vaulted ahead in speed, but the memory associated
with those CPUs is often a performance bottleneck. Chip designers foresaw this several
years ago, and began experimenting with memory bus innovations such as Rambus.

Future computers often will have "Intel inside," but whether they use Rambus is not
yet clear. Some observers suggest that Rambus is a good fit where multimedia and
graphics use is intense, but, unless streaming media quickly enters the mainstream,
that support may not be needed right away.

In any case, Rambus is often found in the news these days, usually in a none-too-
favorable light. Generally the company is discussed in terms of suits and
countersuits -- or settlements -- with the big names in the memory chip business. It
has been suggested that the big chip makers bridle as a result of dealings with Rambus,
which is more a high-tech think tank than a traditional chip house. Rambus designs
chips and establishes technology patents, but doesn't fabricate its own designs.

Reports in recent days have cast doubt upon Intel's endorsement of Rambus.

Intel's decision in the mid-1990s to use the Rambus DRAM (R-DRAM) architecture as
the technology of choice for deploying future high-speed designs was a crowning
achievement for Rambus. It highlighted what was until then a foreign method for moving
data on and off fast processors. Rambus was expected to become a common site on the
computer terrain based on its choice by the 300-pound gorilla of desktop computing.

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