LOS ANGELES With DRAMs no longer serving as a distraction, IBM Corp.'s Microelectronics Division is putting more of its energies into the PowerPC architecture. A spate of offerings ranging from the 750CX standalone PowerPC MPU, to the 440GP core intended for system-on-chip (SoC) designs will be unveiled this week at the Embedded Processor Forum.
IBM recently started shipping the 750CX for use at the high-end of the embedded market, in such applications as RAID controllers and networking systems, and to Apple Computer Inc. With 256 kbytes of L2 cache, the processor's clock speed ranges from 350-to-550 MHz.
Dean Parker, product marketing manager for the PowerPC business unit of IBM in Research Triangle Park, N.C., said IBM used a plastic package with a PowerPC for the first time in the 750CX, which helps reduce the chip's cost. In a plastic BGA with 256 I/Os, the 400-MHz version of the part is $77.
While the most performan ce-hungry members of the networking industry will continue to use standalone processors, many customers are turning to integrated solutions, to reduce costs and to offer market-specific functions. The 440GP is based on the PowerPC 440 core. Announced last fall, the core delivers as much as 500 MHz of processing power. The result is the PowerPC 440GP, a "platform" IC that includes a PCI-X bridge, a double-data-rate 266 SDRAM controller, a 128-bit on-chip CoreConnect bus, two Ethernet ports, and memory. That level of integration means that a full-blown SoC solution based on the 440GP "platform" can be created more easily, with other intellectual property cores or customer-defined logic added as needed.
IBM calls these platform ICs "superstructures," and expects them to ease the pain of developing an SoC from scratch by quickly delivering a fully-verified base on which more highly integrated designs can be built.
George Doerre, manager of methodology integration at IBM's facility in Fishkill, N.Y., sai d that designs based on the 440GP are done for the most part by IBM's own ASIC design teams in partnership with customers who develop their own random logic.
Design track record
Turnaround time is so critical to the success of ASIC designs and to first-pass success in silicon that IBM does the bulk of the design for its customers. "Over time, we will get to the point where both vendor and IBM tools can be used. But right now, one of IBM's strengths is a good record of first-pass silicon," Doerre said.
The 440GP delivers up to 900 million instruction per second performance at 500 MHz, which makes it arguably the most powerful embedded processor core to date. Parker said that 440GP-based designs now in progress will ship in the fourth quarter, built in IBM's 0.18-micron copper-based process.
IBM also is sampling a simpler version of the 405GP processor that was introduced last June. The 405CR (the CR stands for "cost reduced") deletes the PCI bridge, Ethernet port, and on-chip SRAM from the 405GP platform. Both the CR and GP versions are based on the 405 PowerPC core unveiled in the fall of 1998.
Parker said that the 405CR will be used in a line of basestations from Siemens, while Ericsson is using the 405GP in certain of its basestations. The removal of several functional cores has reduced the cost of the 405CR device to $23.50 apiece, which is about 20 percent less than the 405GP, according to IBM.
IBM claims that its PowerPC business increased by 80 percent in 1999, much of it from the networking and communications sectors. However, IBM does not detail the size of its semiconductor operations, which are described as between $6 billion and $7 billion, divided roughly between in-house and commercial sales.
Tom Starnes, an analyst based in Austin, Texas who tracks microcomponents for Dataquest Inc., said revenues from IBM's PowerPC business were about $400 million in 1999. In comparison, Motorola Inc.'s Semiconductor Products Sector generated PowerPC revenues of about $ 500 million last year. "IBM is actually fairly new to the merchant semiconductor business," Starnes said. "Their ASIC operation has really been the shining star there, but the PowerPC operation is doing very well also. The difference for Motorola is that it has been in the communications business for a very long time, and has established relations with customers in the networking area that go back to the early 1980s."
Another source, who recently retired from IBM, said that leadership differences have also been a factor. IBM had invested heavily in DRAMs, and lost huge amounts of money on DRAMs in the 1996-1999 time frame, and finally exited the business.
Also, the PowerPC operation was less successful than IBM hoped, with Apple as the lone major user in the computer industry. Turning the PowerPC into an embedded processor and focusing on communications finally made the company's efforts to develop the PowerPC worthwhile.
In addition, IBM chief executive officer Lou Gerstner paid little attentio n to the company's Microelectronics Division for several years, and instead put his energies into systems and software. Under Microelectronics Division general manager John Kelly III, IBM's longstanding technical abilities in design methodology, process technology, and logic have finally flowered into commercial success, the former IBM manager said.