SANTA CLARA, Calif. Startup SiByte Inc. is preparing a 64-bit MIPS-based microprocessor that will hit speeds up to 1 GHz and run on just 2.5 watts. The company is one of many participating in this week's Embedded Processor Forum looking to capitalize on the communications boom with innovative microprocessor designs that rival the performance of the best PC processors.
Indeed, the latest crop of devices indicates the performance race may shift to embedded architectures, where non-X86 designs are vying to stake out a claim to communications.
"Our motto is server-class performance in the embedded space," said Dan Dobberpuhl, founder, president and chief executive officer of SiByte, based here. Dobberpuhl was once a key designer at Digital Equipment Corp. where he played important roles in the design of both the Alpha considered by some to be the world's fastest microprocessor and the StrongARM chip, one of the most power-effic ient architectures in the embedded realm.
SiByte's first core design, the SB-1, is essentially an Alpha-class processor running at near-StrongARM power levels. The company will detail the core this week at the forum in San Jose, Calif. It runs at frequencies ranging from 600 MHz to 1 GHz using the 64-bit MIPS instruction set. With a die size of about 25 mm2, it was designed for multiprocessor implementations. The first chip based on the architecture will be aimed at the networking market, where high performance is taken for granted.
The ascendancy of networking as a technology driver is seen in an abundance of forum papers describing communications processors. "We're seeing a lot more activity in the networking space," said Tom Halfhill, embedded processor analyst for MicroDesign Resources (Sunnyvale, Calif.), who will moderate a panel on high-performance architectures at the conference.
Those architectures include the MIPS-based NetVortex design from Lex ra Inc., and a DSP-based approach from BOPS Inc. called the Manta. MIPS Technologies Inc. will also introduce a 64-bit architecture called the 20K, which the company said will be the foundation of its high-performance 64-bit product line for the next several years. MIPS expects to see this design employed in consumer electronics and in networking applications.
Other anticipated papers will detail designs from configurable-processor vendor Transmeta Corp., a new PowerPC from IBM Microelectronics and a very-low-power MIPS-based architecture from Alchemy Semiconductor Inc.
But it may be hard to top the SiByte design. The SB-1 core features a quad-issue pipeline and offers more than 2,000 Dhrystone Mips. The 1-GHz version runs on 2.5 W, with slower versions using even less power. Dobberpuhl said the core delivers more than 800 Mips/W. That's "about the same amount of Mips per watt as the StrongARM design," he said, "but [with] 10 times the performance of that architecture." The core is designed to sup port multiprocessor implementations.
Dobberpuhl said there is no mathematical or architectural limit to the number of cores that can be placed on a single die, though analyst Halfhill said he expected the first few chips will use two or four cores. SiByte plans to sample its first actual chip based on the core by year's end, with volume shipments to follow early next year.
With clock rates in the gigahertz range, the core is as powerful as the most advanced X86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, but its power consumption puts it closer to the Crusoe from Transmeta.
SiByte is not looking at the PC market but at high-end networking. While the networking bandwidth required by routers and switches continues to swell, power dissipation is becoming more critical because of the heat levels in systems and increasingly crowded wiring closets.
The company eventually plans a family of chips based on the SB-1, and promises to soon roll a less-powerful version aimed at lower-bandwidth networ king. By the end of next year, SiByte says it will bring out a third chip packed with more of the SB-1 cores and able to deliver even greater performance.
Meanwhile, Dobberpuhl and his team of 90 engineers are starting work on the SB-2, and several chips based on that core are also planned. With an eye toward the multiprocessing element, SiByte has created a proprietary bus to link the cores within a die, running at 16 Gbytes/second. It will be used in future implementations of the architecture.
The SB-1 will be manufactured in a 0.15-micron standard process at one of the larger commercial foundries, which SiByte declined to name. But Dobberpuhl said his company will eventually have agreements with more than one manufacturer and won't be limited to a single supplier.
Dobberpuhl has created one of the biggest and in Dobbpuhl's view the most powerful MIPS-based design teams in the industry. Halfhill said that the SiByte design "goes even further than the new [64-bit architecture] pr oduct from MIPS [itself]."
"Our design is 100 percent MIPS-compatible, which should make it easier for designers to work with our chips," said Dobberpuhl. "That was an important issue for us."
Cisco Systems Inc. and Juniper Networks Inc. have taken undisclosed equity stakes in SiByte and are expected to be early customers. Dobberpuhl stressed that SiByte will not license the technology but will make and sell the products itself.
That isn't surprising, considering Dobberpuhl's background. He watched two of his earlier designs get sold off, with Compaq taking the Alpha and Intel the StrongARM. He hopes to take SiByte public eventually, and said the company will not be acquired. Dobberpuhl said he has no plans to let anybody else shepherd his latest design into the market. "The last thing I want to do is go work for another big company," he said. "We think we've got a winner here."