Is there room for another processor company?

San Jose (CA) - P.A. Semi is a new player in the processor market that competes for a portion of the cut-throat CPU market. The company hopes to carve out its place by avoiding direct confrontation with Intel: P.A. Semi's 65 nm low-power dual-core system-on-a-chip design is based on IBM's Power Architecture. Announced today, the first 2 GHz chips are scheduled to sample by Q3 2006.

Low-power processors? Listening to P. A. Semi, we cannot help thinking about another company that was about to take the processor market by storm by introducing a technology that consumed much less power than any other existing chip architecture. Almost six years ago, it was Transmeta that had developed a revolutionary processor that was promised a rosy future - until the first processors were physically available and until Intel had re-directed its marketing forces and product development.

P. A. Semi's approach of a low-power processor sounds very much like Transmeta's strategy at first, but in fact is different in a few key-aspects. The firm's processors, named "PWRficient", are a complete SoC (system-on-a-chip) solution and apparently put a greater focus on performance than Transmeta ever did. "Nobody can touch the processor's performance at a particular power level," said Pete Bannon, Vice President, Architecture at P.A. Semi, in a conversation with TG Daily.

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P. A. Semi PA6T-1682M processor

Most important, perhaps, PWRficient is not x86-based and therefore avoids direct competition with Intel and AMD. Instead, P. A. Semi licensed IBM's Power Architecture and sees actually IBM, ARM and Freescale as its initial competitors. But Bannon mentioned that the chip could compete with Intel in higher-end cluster applications one day.

So, what does P. A. Semi offer? The PWRficient is said to debut as 65 nm PA6T-1682M model 200 million transistors. The chip design integrates two 2 GHz cores, each with 64 kByte I-cache and 64 kByte D-cache. The cores are connected through an interface named "Connexium" that connects to 2 MByte shared L2 cache. The bandwidth of the interface is 16 GByte in read and write processes. Other components of the SoC include transaction trace memory, peripheral trace memory, as well as the "Envoi" component as I/O protocol engine that covers PCI Express, dual 10 Gbit Ethernet, I/O cache, DMA and offload engines, for example.

For the future, P. A. Semi says, the design is scalable to eight cores, to 2.5 GHz clock speed and up to 8 MByte L2 cache.

The result, apparently, is a PowerPC-based processor that is promised to deliver a performance-per-watt scenario, that is "much superior" to what processors offer today. According to Bannon, the PWRficient's performance-per-watt ratio is "10-15 times" better than what today's mobile processors deliver and "about 3 times better than Intel's future chips." The company says that "typical" power consumption of the 2 GHz dual-core chip is between 5 and 13 watts.

Interestingly, it is rumored that it was especially the power consumption of the Power Architecture that led Apple to drop IBM's chip architecture for its next generation of computers. But P. A. Semi considers its PWRficient design to be a "highly disruptive processor" that "does not depend on IBM's advances" in developing new processors - even if the chip design uses Power components. Bannon said that the company, which employs about 150 people including industry veterans from Broadcom, AMD and Intel - actually collaborates with IBM to drive the chip's design.

P. A. Semi schedules the sampling process of the PWRficient processor to begin in the third calendar quarter of 2006. Taping and volume production of single-core and quad-core versions are planned for early and late 2007, respectively. The eight-core version of the chip is scheduled for 2008. Similar as Transmeta, P. A. Semi - which, according to company officials, stands for Palo Alto Semi - is announcing its processors very early and far ahead of their actual availability. Without a highly visible personality such as Linus Torvalds, who kept Transmeta's fire burning from the time of announcement and availability of the Crusoe processor, it will be interesting to see how P. A. Semi can build its momentum - and elude Intel's marketing and product force.