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Broadcom unveils new four-core processor

Communications chipmaker Broadcom is announcing a processor that combines four cores onto a single piece of silicon.
/ Source: Forbes

Communications chipmaker Broadcom today will announce a chip that combines four cores -- the central brain of a chip -- onto a single piece of silicon.

Broadcom will present technical details of the chip Tuesday at the Fall Processor Forum, a semiconductor industry conference in San Jose, Calif.  Broadcom is just one of many companies that are expected to make news regarding chips with more than one core.  Others expected to detail dual-core and multicore chip designs include Advanced Micro Devices and Freescale Semiconductor, the former semiconductor unit of Motorola.

Putting two or more cores on a single chip is expected to become an increasingly common method of ramping up the computing power of a chip while keeping its power consumption under control.  Dual-core and multicore microprocessors represent an important shift in thinking of how microprocessors are designed.  Over the last few decades, chips have followed a relatively reliable pattern in which their transistors shrink, which allows the speed at which they run to speed up.  But in recent years, that classic approach hasn't yielded the same kind of improvement in how much work a chip can actually accomplish.

Adding a second core allows a chip to split up computing tasks more efficiently while running somewhat slower overall.  The result is improved efficiency and more computing work completed in less time than with a single-core chip.  Both AMD and Intel have said they're working on bringing dual-core designs to their microprocessors for PCs, notebooks and servers in the coming years.

But Broadcom's design -- which is being implemented on four distinct chips -- incorporates four cores, which the company says is the first for the industry segments it is targeting, which include corporate networking and storage, wireless and broadband, and high-density computing applications.  Broadcom's major customers include Cisco Systems, Nokia, Nortel Networks, Motorola and Alcatel.

"We have been shipping dual-core chips for more than two years," says Anu Sundaresan, Broadcom's product manager for the group that made the chip.  "We've been helping our customers partition their software so that they can take advantage of the multiple cores."

The chip will compete with others from IBM and Freescale based on the PowerPC architecture, as well as certain chips from Intel.  For its part, Freescale is expected to disclose details of its own dual-core PowerPC chip, which has led to some speculation that such a chip might wind up in a computer from Apple Computer.

The chip's cores are based on patented designs licensed from MIPS Technologies.  The design was created by a unit of Broadcom that used to be a separate company called SiByte, which Broadcom acquired in 2000.

Analyst Nathan Brookwood, of Insight64 in Saratoga, Calif., says the chip also takes some unusual steps with its input/output capabilities.  "For the intelligent system designers, this chip lets you move data in on one line and out on another without impacting the main memory subsystems, or the links between the four cores.  For communications applications especially, when you're moving lots of data in and out, this will be a very interesting device."

Also expected today is an announcement from Sun Microsystems concerning its line of UltraSparc microprocessors.  Sun will on Tuesday disclose at the same conference technical details of its UltraSparc IV+ processor, which will be Sun's second-generation dual-core design. It will be built for Sun by Texas Instruments.  Sun says the chip will double the performance of the existing UltraSparc IV.

Brookwood calls the latest UltraSparc IV+ an example of Sun "playing to the choir" of its established customers.  "Sun continues to hold on to its serious customers in the Sparc space, but it's having trouble attracting new ones," he says.  "They do get one occasionally, but it's been the exception to the rule."

But for Sun, the future apparently lies with another chip, code-named Niagara, which isn't expected until 2006 or 2007. With Niagara, which was first discussed at a chip industry conference last month, Sun apparently is hoping to take the idea of multicore chips to an even higher level.  Brookwood says the Niagara chip will have eight cores.  But each core will appear to the software running on the computer to be four cores, giving an eight-core chip the ability to act like a chip with 32 distinct cores.