Chip makers go mobile

Intel, IBM and Cadence Design Systems will launch a pilot programme aimed at chip designers with lightweight mobile workstations...

Intel, IBM and Cadence Design Systems will launch a pilot programme aimed at chip designers with lightweight mobile workstations based on the Pentium M.

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 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 are already testing IBM's ThinkPad T42p mobile workstation with Intel's latest 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's Windows. The workstations can ship with both operating systems if the customer requests that capability.

The increased cache of the 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 central processing unit 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 finalising its Linux drivers for the wireless chips and early workstations will ship with beta drivers.

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

Mobile workstations in the past were usually very large and heavy because of 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.

Intel will 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.

Tom Krazit writes for IDG News Service

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