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Big Blue Tweaks Chip Contender

In the quest to come up with the best all-around server chip, IBM is combining three of its innovative chip technologies for its 64-bit processors.

IBM Monday said its scientists at its plant in East Fishkill, N.Y. developed a new method of making low-power, high-performance microprocessors using a first-of-its-kind combination of silicon-on-insulator (SOI), strained silicon and copper wiring technologies.

The benefit, according to IBM, is that putting strained silicon and SOI together speeds the flow of electrons through transistors to increase performance, while providing an insulating layer in the silicon that isolates transistors to decrease power consumption.

The company said it would start making the chip in volume production later this year using 90 nanometer manufacturing process. IBM said the new technology would show up first in its 64-bit PowerPC 970FX microprocessor, which powers products ranging from consumer electronics to supercomputers.

The one-chip-fits-all design means that the PowerPC 970FX would be good for both low power (laptop, embedded) and multiprocessor (desktop, server) systems.

"Our decades-long commitment to pursuing and rapidly implementing technology breakthroughs like SOI and strained silicon is paving the way for a new generation of power savvy chips," Bernard S. Meyerson, IBM Fellow and chief technologist, IBM Systems and Technology Group said in a statement.

Derived from IBM's POWER4 dual-core microprocessor family, the PowerPC 970FX is designed for use in a wide array of applications, from desktops to servers to storage and communications products, which require 64-bit performance and/or low power consumption from a microprocessor.

The company said its 970FX also takes advantage of PowerTune, a power saving technique, enabled through system-wide tuning and controlling of processor frequency and voltage.

The new chip also allows for 64-bit computing with as much as 18 exabytes (18 billion bytes) of memory while also running 32-bit applications natively. The design of the 970FX also supports symmetric multi-processing (SMP), allowing systems to be created that link multiple processors to work in tandem for additional processing power.

The combined technologies are of note for companies like Apple Computer , which has announced that it will use the PowerPC 970FX in its powerful new Xserve G5 1U rack-mount server. "With this fusion of IBM-pioneered technologies, customers no longer have to sacrifice performance to achieve the power savings they increasingly demand," Meyerson said.

IBM said the low heat and power of its 970FX chips with PowerTune is good for Xserve, which is being used in more and more data centers and even supercomputers.

The combination of PowerTune and low heat and power is also good for Apple's PowerBook lineup, spurring fascination by the Macintosh community that the chips could be the next G5 in their pro-user laptops.

The advances will most certainly signal an alarm at chipmaking giants Intel and AMD , which are both making 64-bit chips for consumer and business computers.

Intel this week is expected to outline how it will update its 32-bit x86 processor line (Xeon, Pentium) to 64-bit.

AMD is already gaining ground in the 64-bit space with its server designed Opteron processors and its Athlon 64 desktop chips, but the two chips are not compatible with each other. That could be a sticking point for vendors that only want to buy one chipset and not two or even three.

IBM's new chipmaking methods are being discussed in detail at the International Solid-State Circuit Conference (ISSCC) this week in San Francisco.