ANALYSIS: Rambus headed for workstation niche

By George Lawton, ITworld.com |  Hardware

But Intel and others have found Rambus technology difficult and expensive to
implement. Anti-Rambus rumblings grew louder when Intel CEO Craig Barrett told the
Financial Times of London that Intel's decision to go with Rambus memory was a
mistake. Intel officials subsequently said Barrett was referring to Intel's Timna
processor, a Rambus-compatible design aimed at low-end computer systems. Timna was
cancelled before its launch due to problems with a translation hub that would have
allowed the Timna processor to operate with less expensive synchronous DRAM (S-
DRAM).

Intel is publicly committed to keep working with Rambus, albeit solely for high-end
workstation designs.

An Intel spokesman said that Intel decided to drop support for the R-DRAM in its so-
called "value line" of Timna products owing largely to the high costs of the
technology, and will instead use alternative double data rate DRAM (DDR DRAM)
technology.

Intel ran into problems with its Timna project, which had been aiming to create a
low-cost PC by integrating most PC functionality onto a single chip, when the company
tried to add support for S-DRAM. Memory makers and systems houses wanted to use S-DRAM
as an alternative and Intel had created a chip to translate the signal from the chipset
design to R-DRAM mode. But the translation was somewhat flawed, and since Intel
realized that the market would be gone by the time it could correct the problem, the
company decided to terminate Timna. Before the company could get a translation hub chip
to work correctly, it was felt, the market opportunity would have come and gone.

There may be other issues associated with the use of Rambus technology as well.
Kevin Krewell, an analyst with MicroDesign Resources, said, "Rambus does not scale as
easily and you cannot add as many modules on a board. So from that point of view, all
of the OEMs have told Intel that they need to focus on S-DRAM and follow on with the
DDR S-DRAM."

Krewell added, "Rambus handles packetized traffic [more efficiently] and S-
DRAM handles [greater amounts of] DRAM better. Rambus is good for graphics and
media processing and S-DRAM is better for all-around general-purpose use."

Dean McCarron, an analyst with Mercury Research, does not agree that Rambus is
necessarily better for graphics. He noted that Rambus has miniature caches that can
deliver data more quickly, but the downside is that you may have to access data in big
chunks in order to realize improved performance.

McCarron said the primary difference between DDR DRAM, S-DRAM, and R-DRAM lies in
the electrical interface to the circuit. He notes that the manufacturers assert that
DDR DRAM will be easier to build and has fewer royalty costs, but added, "We are still
early in the market for DDR to determine if that is true."

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