IBM, Intel, Cadence let chip designers go mobile

Intel Corp.’s new Dothan Pentium M processors outperform their predecessors by enough of a margin to prompt Intel, IBM Corp., and Cadence Design Systems Inc. to launch a pilot program aimed at unleashing chip designers with lightweight mobile workstations based on the Pentium M, the companies are expected to announce Monday.

Semiconductor design is a painstaking, compute-intensive task that has traditionally required design engineers to depend on powerful Unix workstations to get their work done, said Kelly Perey, vice-president of marketing for Cadence’s custom IC (integrated circuit) products. Cadence, based in San Jose, develops software applications that are used to design chips.

But as more and more chip companies expand their operations around the world, the benefits of mobility become easy to understand, said Guru Bhatia, general manager of engineering computing at Intel. Engineers need to have access to their corporate network to access changes made by fellow engineers to the central design plan, he said.

Chip designers at Intel, IBM, and National Semiconductor Inc. are currently testing IBM’s ThinkPad T42p mobile workstation with Intel’s newest Pentium M 745 and 735 processors and Cadence’s design software, said Tom Holt, IBM’s director of global electronics.

The mobile workstations are custom designs that can run Linux or Microsoft Corp.’s Windows, Holt said. The workstations can ship with both operating systems if the customer requests that capability, he said.

The increased cache of the new Pentium M processors was the key ingredient in delivering enough performance to handle the requirements of Cadence’s software, said Udi Landen, vice-president of operations and research and development for custom IC products. Dothan, the 90-nanometer version of the Pentium M unveiled last month, contains twice as much Level 2 cache as its predecessor. Frequently accessed data is stored in a processor’s cache close to the CPU for quick and easy access.

Intel’s Pro/Wireless chip allows design engineers to connect to their corporate networks from wireless hot spots to download design changes or new design criteria, Landen said. Intel is in the process of finalizing its Linux drivers for the wireless chips and early workstations will ship with beta drivers, an Intel spokesperson said.

Chip companies interested in trying out the mobile workstations can contact one of the three companies involved, Holt said. Pricing for the workstations will vary greatly depending on the number ordered and the specific configurations requested by the customer, he said. The T42p cost US$3,409 when it was introduced in May without Cadence’s software.

The mobile workstation is not a new concept. But mobile workstations of the past were usually very large and heavy due to the thermal shields required to protect the notebook from the heat dissipated by powerful processors. The Pentium M chip was designed to limit power consumption while still delivering high levels of performance.

Sources have told IDG News Service that Intel is planning to shift its processors to the Pentium M architecture in the coming years to take advantage of that chip’s performance and power characteristics. The power consumption of Intel’s Pentium 4 processors actually increased when the company moved the chip to 90 nanometers, the opposite of what usually happens when a chip company moves to a smaller process technology. Those 90-nanometer Pentium 4 processors also did not outperform their older counterparts at similar clock speeds despite an increase in cache size.

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