Intel to revise approach to server memory

SAN FRANCISCO — Intel is preparing to introduce a memory architecture that it says will help improve speed and performance in its server products.

Executives at the Intel Developer Forum this week said the chipmaker would begin

altering the interface on dual in-line memory modules (DIMMs), the small circuit boards that hold memory chips, with buffers, a temporary storage area that allow the CPU to manipulate data before transferring it to a device. These fully-buffered DIMMs, or FB-DIMMs, will come out in 2006 and will affect the Double Data Rate (DDR) memory version 2 that is being incorporated into many Intel-based servers.

In a media briefing, Intel senior fellow Pete MacWilliams said the changes are necessary because the capacity on current DDR2 is not keeping up with customer requirements. For example, as customers start using higher levels of DDR2 memory, it becomes more difficult to add DIMMs on the board. Few boards using higher levels of DDR2 have more than two DIMM slots. The introduction of FB-DIMMs, MacWilliams said, will mean four DIMMs on a “”channel”” in the memory module and in theory, a total of eight DIMMs would be possible.

Intel senior engineer Pete Vogt said FB-DIMMs will not require the development of new dynamic random access memory (DRAM) technology, but it will see such memory packaged differently. There will be many benefits, he said, including 33 per cent more bandwidth and less than a third of the pins required on current memory products.

Memory represents another way Intel can improve the performance of its products beyond pure clock speed. Intel began throwing more support behind DDR following a major design glitch several years ago with memory designed by Rambus, which later started suing DDR manufacturers over alleged patent infringements. MacWilliams said FB-DIMMs shouldn’t lead to any court battles.

“”This was fully developed within JDEC (a memory standards organization), so we don’t expect any problems,”” he said. “”But who knows?””

Intel is working with a number of memory suppliers to ease the transition of FB-DIMMs into the DDR space, said Jim Pappas, director of technology initiatives within Intel’s Enterprise Platforms Group. “”This isn’t going to be some kind of secret sauce or anything,”” he said.

Vogt said there would initially be a premium on pricing for DDR using FB-DIMMs because they add more functions to the DIMM. “”But that should ramp down quite quickly into commodity-type pricing,”” he said.

Memory suppliers said they are willing to deal with the cost curve. “”Once it’s in volume, the price will be similar to ECC over non-ECC modules,”” said Heinrich Kirchauer, a product manager with Infineon Technologies in Munich. “”Something had to be done, and this seems to be the most cost-effective solution.””

Despite the promise of FB-DIMMs, IT managers shouldn’t expect to see it expand outside the server space anytime soon, said Jim Elliot, associate director of DRAM marketing with Samsung in San Jose, Calif. “”You’d be looking at adding an extra two chips per module, and desktop OEMs have been averse to that,”” he said, although he noted there may be some opportunities in the workstation market.

MacWilliams said FB-DIMMs will be important as higher versions of DDR2 hit the market. DDR-400 and 533 are ramping up now, he said, while DDR-600 should be available next year.

IDF 2004 wrapped up Thursday.

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