Federal buyers weigh their chip choices

Although federal PC buyers typically do not dwell on computer chip architectures they do care about cost and performance and these issues are closely related.

When most people think about computer processors they think Intel Corp. maker of the Pentium and Pentium Pro chips. Intel with its x86 architectures continues to dominate the federal market introducing technologies such as MMX (multimedia extensions) that competitors follow or parallel.

But x86 competitors such as Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) and Cyrix Corp. are making a powerful price/performance bid not only for the low- and midrange but for the high-performance sector.

Computer technology develops so quickly that it is "generally further advanced than the applications we're executing " said Capt. Kevin Gross program manager for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command's Computer-Aided Design-2 contract. But there's no shortage of ideas for harnessing the power. "We have expectations of using the technology in a larger context than presently " Gross said.

For example the Patuxent River Md.-based facility has implemented an "installationwide graphics-based network data-sharing" capability - including operations maintenance and planning - that has grown to encompass some 30 000 data elements Gross said. Such applications drive the requirement for increasing processing power.

While Intel has an obvious edge in both market share and mind share federal PC buyers generally are less concerned with the brand name on the chip and more concerned with price and performance.

But performance means more than raw processing speeds. In recent months the chip vendors have addressed new issues such as graphics processing led by Intel with its MMX chip and microprocessor management as Intel has done in conjunction with IBM Corp.

Expanding Market

The chip market continues to enjoy phenomenal growth. In the x86 sector sales of $15.4 billion last year on 77.6 million chips shipped are expected to grow to $19.6 billion this year with 89 million units shipped according to Dataquest microprocessor analyst Nathan Brookwood. By 2000 he said he expects revenue of $32.4 billion on 144 million chips.

Although Intel will continue to take the lion's share AMD and Cyrix are challenging more successfully than before. By 2000 according to Dataquest competitors could account for about 25 percent of the units shipped and 15 percent of the dollars - up from 15 and 5 percent respectively in 1996. The performance of their new products is already "within spitting distance" of the soon-to-be-announced Pentium II Brookwood said.

And while nearly every major manufacturer makes Intel-based computers a handful of vendors sell alternatives. Acer America Corp. Everex Systems Inc. and Dunn Computer Corp. ship boxes with AMD chips while IBM and Compaq Computer Corp. sell computers built around the Cyrix chip.

Typically cost is the driving factor. For example as part of the recently awarded Army PC-2 contract federal reseller Sysorex Information Systems Inc. now offers a low-end computer for just a little more than $1 000 - a price point available largely because of the low-cost Cyrix chip according to people familiar with the program.

"Generally we're not concerned with architectures" per se said Anthony Battista fielding team leader for the Small Computer Program at Fort Monmouth N.J. SCP has standard performance benchmarks but such measures only make up one aspect of an evaluation. "We want to keep as close to current technology as possible but cost is important " Battista said.

Turning Up the Heat

But while AMD and Cyrix may win customers away from Intel with low prices the three companies are battling it out on performance as well.

In the next several months Intel is expected to introduce the first three chips of its Pentium II microprocessor line. The first chips are expected to run at speeds of 233 MHz 266 MHz and 300 MHz pushing up performance on the desktop while Pentium Pro continues to power PC servers.

As Intel's chip technology evolves from Pentium to Pentium Pro to Pentium II "the key thread in everything we're doing is compatibility " said Sam Wilkie Intel's marketing manager for Pentium processors Santa Clara Calif. "We build performance on top of compatibility."

However AMD and Cyrix are turning up the heat on Intel not only by pushing for equivalent clock speeds but by designing their own chip architectures.

The most familiar measure of performance is clock speed expressed in megahertz. However the design of the chip itself can influence performance in ways that are not indicated by raw clock speed. A chip consists of a set of instructions that a software program can invoke to carry out operations with different units of the chip responsible for accessing data and executing those instructions.

Vendors also can increase the levels of processor cache to improve performance. Cache is a temporary storage area or pipeline that lines up instructions to be executed and data to be processed as soon as possible. Otherwise the chip would have to continually turn to the main computer memory which slows performance. Processors can have either Level 1 (L1) cache which resides on the chip itself and has the greatest impact or Level 2 (L2) cache as part of the motherboard which may or may not have an impact on performance.

By fine-tuning the microprocessor design manufacturers can improve overall application performance. AMD and Cyrix have done just that.

Earlier this month AMD announced volume shipments of its K6 MMX processor running at 166 MHz 200 MHz and 233 MHz which the company said outperforms the fastest available Pentium Pro.

The company claims an edge for its 200 MHz K6 over the 200 MHz Pentium Pro and Pentium/MMX under Windows 95 using the Winstone 97 benchmark. Under Windows NT the K6 200 MHz outperformed the Pentium 200 MHz MMX but scored 1.2 points lower than the Pentium Pro 200 AMD said.

AMD later this year plans to boost to 266 MHz and 300 MHz after upgrading its transistor technology said Dirk Heinen marketing manager of AMD Austin Texas.

The AMD chips are also less expensive than Pentium Pros. The company's 233 MHz chip sells for $469 or $525 with 256K of chip cache which enhances the performance. Intel's 200 MHz Pentium Pro with 512K of cache costs $1 035. The 200 MHz Pentium with MMX is priced at $539. Heinen said the AMD processor also boasts the largest internal cache - 64K - of any x86 chip which is another important factor in performance.

According to industry observers Intel is vulnerable because of some of the architectural choices it made in designing the Pentium II. For example observers point out that the Pentium II will initially talk to its second-level cache at a much lower rate than did the Pentium Pro - 100 MHz instead of 200 MHz in the case of the expected 200 MHz Pentium II chip.

Also as part of its new processors Intel changed the format of the socket where the chip plugs in. K6 on the other hand continues to use the existing socket - called Socket 7 - infrastructure making upgrades easier the company said. AMD has announced an initiative to promote continued use of Socket 7.

However the new processor also doubles the amount of L1 cache from 16K in Pentium Pro to 32K according to Manny Vara an Intel spokesman. Moreover the slowest Pentium II will be faster than 200 MHz so a Pentium II will talk to cache a lot faster than the basic Pentium. And the L2 bus is devoted wholly to cache rather than serving input/output and everything else as in older designs which can eat up that bandwidth Intel said.

Cyrix also is trying to beat Intel at its own game. With its 6x86 processor line Cyrix has adapted many features of the Pentium Pro such as the ability to execute multiple instructions in parallel - what is called a superscalar architecture. But the company also said it has optimized many aspects of that design to eliminate inefficiencies that can bog down performance. And while Cyrix compares the 6x86 with the Pentium Pro it prices it to compete with the Pentium.

According to Cyrix its chip will boost application performance significantly without forcing end users to recompile their code. However recompiled code will run 5 to 10 percent faster the company said.

That focus on software compatibility is the bottom line for federal users at least in the Air Force Desktop V world said Ken Heitkamp technical director with the Air Force's Standard Systems Group which handles the contract. "We don't dictate chip architectures " Heitkamp said.

New Frontiers

While competing chip architecture may not mean much to federal PC users the result does. In recent months the competition has expanded from basic processing performance to address new areas such as multimedia processing and chip management.

Earlier this year Intel introduced its MMX chip for improved processing of multimedia information. In designing the MMX chip for processing multimedia information Intel added 57 instructions tailored to the requirements of multimedia applications. MMX technology represents the first "significant enhancement" to the x86 instruction set architecture since the 386 in 1985 according to Intel's Wilkie.

Intel cited industry benchmarks indicating that MMX boosts integer and floating-point performance. Measured by the SPECint95 benchmark integer performance - thought to be a predictor for many commercial applications - is said to increase by 26 percent with a 200 MHz MMX-enhanced Pentium compared with a basic 200 MHz Pentium.

AMD has licensed Intel's MMX design but Cyrix wrote its own set of new instructions as part of its MediaGX processor. An unusual chip Cyrix's MediaGX incorporates multimedia functions into the CPU. In addition the Virtual System Architecture software technology means that MediaGX-based systems can provide graphics and sound without video and audio cards. The result is high-performance but low-cost systems the company said.

The Compaq Presario 2100 which uses a 133 MHz MediaGX is $999.

Cyrix offers the chip at 120 MHz and 133 MHz today and plans to introduce 200 MHz machines by year's end as part of its new processor which incorporates MediaGX technology and other architectural improvements.

The new frontier for these performance enhancements is multimedia including areas such as video teleconferencing training and simulation. MMX should also prove useful in animation and speech recognition Intel said and in enhanced new products such as Motorola Inc.'s "software modem " which uses MMX to boost data throughput.

Innovations such as MMX that promise better multimedia performance for example may make "distance learning" more effective according to an engineer associated with the Army's SCP.

Other developments include the Intel/IBM "manageability chip " which the two companies have developed to address rising concerns about the performance and security of the new generation of costly powerful microprocessors.

Next month the pair will launch a chip for motherboards that combines power- and temperature-level sensing with intrusion detection said Jim McGann director of worldwide marketing for IBM PC Co. Raleigh N.C.

"New machines like [Pentium II] and beyond will be generating high levels of heat " McGann said. Excessive heat can produce data corruption and data loss. Environmental conditions can also lead to voltage oscillations which can cause bus problems. The new chip "allows us from a remote site to actually monitor and adjust conditions in a machine " he said. Such monitoring will enable technicians to predict when a failure is likely to occur allowing them "to bring a machine down before a hard crash " he explained. The new chip also will incorporate technology that will alert customers when their machines have been opened or components removed. Such unauthorized tinkering accounts for a large share of desktop management costs according to the two companies.

The manageability technology will be incorporated into IBM's desktop products beginning in May.v

-- Adams is a free-lance writer based in Arlington Va.

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At A Glance

Status: Intel Corp. dominates the federal market for PC processors but competing vendors continue to vie for business with alternative chip designs.

Issues: Chip makers will win or lose based on their ability to offer performance equivalent to or better than Intel's x86 but at lower prices.

Outlook: Alternative chip vendors appear to have a market among users who want low-cost systems but those vendors still lag far behind Intel among mainstream PC buyers.

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