Gaining speed

In the past year, the speed of the standard desktop system bought by federal agencies has more than doubled, paving the way for improved performance on applications such as 3-D graphics and video teleconferencing for distance learning and training. Now, thanks to advances in PC chip manufacturing, observers expect that speed to double again by the end of next year.

Manufacturers, notably IBM Corp., are changing the way they manufacture PC processors, using copper wiring instead of aluminum to gain efficiencies. Companies also are borrowing from an unlikely source— computer game systems— to employ new memory architectures that promise to substantially increase the speed of PC applications.

Jim Flowers, system marketing manager at Intergraph Federal Systems, said the new technologies will allow federal users "to do things faster and better than they have before." Flowers said the advances will be felt most among users working with computer graphics. "I would expect [that] in a year or so, almost every federal desktop purchased will have the advanced graphics capability," he said. "From what we've seen, the workstation features are rolling more and more into the desktop."

The Material World

When determining the speed of a computer, the number of megahertz branded onto the chip tells only one part of the story. Processor speeds cannot increase unless manufacturers improve the raw materials used to build the chips. And a faster processor is useless unless the memory and bus architecture allows PCs to deliver data to the processor more efficiently.

Analysts believe manufacturers will address these issues as soon as technically feasible. "Nobody doubts at this point that the industry will be able to take clock rates above 1 GHz," said Fred Zieber, president of Pathfinder Research, San Jose, Calif. "But to get the clock rate above 1 GHz requires special technology."

IBM, long a leader in the research and development arena, recently announced two major changes in processor manufacturing technology: The company has begun using copper rather than aluminum wiring between the transistors that make up the processor, and it will use silicon as an insulator for those transistors.

Because copper is a better conductor of electricity than aluminum— especially at the smaller and thinner levels that processors use now— IBM officials believe that copper wiring and silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology will allow processors to use less power to perform each action.

Unlike SOI, copper-wired processors are here today. Until now, manufacturers have used aluminum wiring because it is much easier to work with and has fewer undesirable interaction problems with the other metals that go into a processor, such as silicon. After some effort, IBM last year was able to develop a way to separate the copper and the silicon to attain the advantages of copper's conducting properties. "Copper itself has some incompatibilities with silicon, so you have to shield it in some way," Zieber said. "That's what's held it up."

A spokesman for IBM's Microelectronics Division said the company's new manufacturing process will enable desktop PCs to go much faster using the same amount of power they do now. And mobile PCs could run at the same speed using less power, becoming less of a drain on the battery and generating much less heat. "The materials you use to build the processor can have a profound impact," the spokes-man said. "This is a fundamental way of constructing chips that could affect anything with a chip."

All the PowerPC 750 processors IBM now manufactures, which Apple Computer Inc. calls its G3 chip, now use copper wiring, and benchmark tests from Apple claim that a 233 MHz G3 processor gets better performance than a 400 MHz Pentium II when running typical applications.

The speed is already showing itself to federal users. "AppleShare IP runs a lot better under the new G3 processors, and the operating system itself, OS 8.5, runs a lot faster," said Mark Miller, senior systems engineer at the National Institutes of Health. "It does make me more efficient in what I do; I do a lot of remote administration over the network."

For now, IBM is the only manufacturer making copper-wired chips, but experts expect to see more within the next six months. Intel Corp. has not disclosed its plans for copper chips, but the company's Coppermine processor, which is due out in the second half of 1999, will not use copper wiring, according to Intel architecture manager Rick Jones. "Our official stance is, we're working on it, and we'll introduce it when it's best for us," Jones said. "It's not going to be any time soon."

Jones said he believes Intel can still get faster processors out of the current aluminum technology and probably will not move to copper for another three to four years.

Keith Diefendorff, senior analyst at MicroDesign Resources Inc., said the switch to copper will require a major change to Intel's manufacturing infrastructure. "[Intel] produces a lot of a very few...types of parts," Diefendorff said. "It's more difficult for them to make a shift" because they need to change over a lot of equipment to move to copper, he said.

Jones said Intel's large volume and number of customers would make any problems immediately obvious to the market. "It's not something we can take a chance on," he said.

Despite Intel's slow start, other companies appear poised to enter the market. Officials at Motorola Inc. have said they are working on copper chips for Apple and will go into production at the end of this year. Advance Micro Devices also has licensed the technology, and Texas Instruments Inc. has been talking about copper wires but is also working on other on-chip interconnection technologies.

Processors built using SOI are another matter. They are not yet in mass production, although IBM has put together several test chips at its plants. The company will begin manufacturing production versions of SOI processors in the first half of next year. The IBM spokesman said SOI directly affects transistors by reducing their "capacitance," or the amount of electricity they must charge and discharge to turn on and off, making them operate faster or use less power. SOI has the potential to increase the speed of a processor by 25 to 35 percent, he said.

Motorola is the only other manufacturer that has moved to take advantage of SOI. Intel officials have said they see the technology as too expensive in the short term.

Together, copper wiring and SOI technology will bring the speed of the processor itself well over 1 GHz, Zieber said. "Copper increases the speed by about 20 percent," he said. "And if you do these things in tandem, then you can get a multiplier effect."

Refreshing Your Memory

The industry also is making advances in the area of memory, which is the mechanism that takes the data from the hard drive, floppy disk or CD-ROM and holds it for easy access from the processor.

RAM comes in many varieties, including dynamic RAM (DRAM), synchronous RAM and synchronous dynamic RAM (SDRAM). But all of these work with a single basic architecture, bringing the data through one line, one bit at a time.

Rambus DRAM (RDRAM), a memory architecture that has been used for years in Nintendo gaming systems, is just now getting ready to move into computers and has garnered quite a bit of backing in the IT industry. Rambus Inc.'s RDRAM, whose supporters include Intel, AMD, IBM, Micron Technology Inc. and Toshiba Corp., utilizes multiple lines through which data flows, pushing the information faster than other architectures that use only one line.

"The Rambus interface basically supports bandwidth that is 10 times faster than conventional DRAM," said Julie Cates, corporate marketing manager for Rambus. "Obviously those applications that take advantage of that will run much faster." With the advances in processor technology, the new memory architectures are not just helpful but necessary, Cates said.

"If you didn't have the Rambus system, your memory system would be holding back your processor," she said.

Rambus is working with Kingston Technology Co. to assemble and test the RDRAM modules. John Sutherland, director of new product development at Kingston, said users can expect to see RDRAM products appear "in some volume" by summer of next year.

Abid Ahmad, director of semiconductor enabling at Intel, said RDRAM is a key component of his company's future plans. Ahmad said Intel's strategy calls for more than simply enhancing the CPU. He said Intel wants to upgrade the whole platform, including the CPU, graphics, I/O traffic and memory. The first three use the memory to perform, and that ends up creating a bottleneck.

The company realized that it needed a way to get more memory for the applications, Ahmad said. A short-term solution would have been to widen the data pathway, or bus, which already has been stretched from 66 MHz to 100 MHz. But that would have been expensive for the end user and would only have solved the problem until memory demand increased again. Rambus gave Intel a long-term solution that met the company's system costs and needs "so we do not have to re-engineer a new solution every year," Ahmad said.

Even systems integrators such as Intergraph Federal Systems, which assembles computers for agencies, view RDRAM as the next step in the evolution of PC memory architectures. Chandler Hall, executive director of product marketing at Intergraph, said next year will be "somewhat of a transitional period" in which customers begin to purchase RDRAM.

Of course, all of this will not happen overnight. With the exception of some Apple users, few federal employees will find most of these technologies on their desktop PCs for several years, analysts and vendors said. Kingston's Sutherland said SDRAM will remain available for years before vendors gradually phase it out. He predicted that RDRAM will reach its peak within two years.

And although copper wiring is further along in the development stage, it remains months away from mainstream acceptance. "Copper is starting to move, little by little, into the mainstream," said Tony Massimini, chief of technology at Semico Research. "But it will probably not get there until 2000 or 2001."

*****

AT A GLANCE

Status: Manufacturers of PC processors have begun improving their processes to create chips that work more efficiently. These companies plan to use new technologies such as copper wiring, silicon-on-insulator and Rambus dynamic random-access memory.

Issues: Some companies may be slow to adopt some of these developments because doing so will entail a large-scale change in their manufacturing infrastructure. In addition, some developments remain untested in PC environments.

Outlook: Good. Analysts agree that these technologies will bring even greater power to the desktop. But most believe mainstream users will not reap any rewards for at least another year.

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