17, 2000 [PC Week] - Intel Corp. has disclosed a problem involving its 820 and
840 chip sets that has spurred the company to scrap plans for three motherboards
it had on its server road map. But while an Intel representative stressed that
the problem would likely affect only a few users, some analysts said the trouble
may indicate a flaw in a crucial component used to configure the boards with
trouble arose when Intel's 820 and 840 chip sets, which were designed to take
advantage of speedier Rambus memory, RDRAM, were configured to work with SDRAM.
According to Intel, memory errors may result from the combined use of the memory
repeater hub (known as MRH-S), which is used to translate native RDRAM support
to SDRAM, and ECC (error correction coding). Intel said it believes few customers
will be affected, since most 820 and 840 chip-set customers using ECC, commonly
in workstation and servers, are likely to have gone with Rambus memory for greater
customers seeking a lower-cost server or workstation solution may have elected
to go with less-expensive SDRAM over RDRAM in order to get the highest amount
of memory for their money.
"We are informing vendors that certain server platforms using the memory repeater
hub as well as the error correction coding have been experiencing memory issues
or errors," said Dan Francisco, an Intel spokesman.
the problem is actually tied to just the memory translation hub, it could spell
big trouble for Intel, said Mike Feibus, principal analyst at Mercury Research
in Scottsdale, Ariz. "We're predicting that more than half of the 840 chip sets
that will ship this quarter will be configured with SDRAM," Feibus said. "So
if there's trouble with the memory translator, that could pose major problems
spokesman for Dell Computer Corp. said the company has avoided packaging SDRAM
with 820 and 840 chip sets after it became aware of the problem a couple of
weeks ago. A representative at Compaq Computer Corp., which sells workstations
with SDRAM, said the company has been made aware of the problem and is working
with Intel to resolve it. Officials at Hewlett-Packard, which also sells systems
packaging SDRAM with the 820 and 840 chip sets, were not immediately available
analyst Kevin Knox said that, while he was unaware of the problem, he's not
surprised. "Anytime you put a translator in there (i.e., the memory translator
hub), you're asking for trouble," he said.
"The 820 and 840 chip sets were not designed for SDRAM," Knox said. "So trying
to make them work with SDRAM posed an obvious risk of introducing errors."
problems involving the memory translator and error correction coding came to
light after Intel informed vendors that it was scrapping plans for three chip
sets targeted for use in servers.
chip sets, known by the code names Pine, Hemlock, and Willow, were developed
based on the 820 and 840 chip-set designs. Intel had planned to design the boards
to accommodate dual processors configured with SDRAM. "We are working to resolve
the issue and expect to fix it in the next 'stepping' of the parts," Francisco
said. The 820 chip set's introduction was initially delayed last fall due to
a platform integration issue involving Rambus. The problem was addressed by
altering the motherboard from its original three-slot RIMM configuration to
a two-slot RIMM configuration.
This is a short-term black eye for Intel, but in the longer term it will weather
the impact from this problem. If Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) had a server offering,
Intel would pay a significantly higher price, both in terms of the hit to its
reputation and the advantage AMD would gain. Since Intel is the only game in
town for the x86-architecture servers, AMD will not gain anything other than
a PR bullet for taking potshots at Intel. (More on this below.)
growth will be dampened for the next few months, until Intel can fix the problem.
It is unlikely that non-x86 servers will be able to capitalize on this issue,
since the two architectures generally compete on other measures than whether
SDRAM works in the motherboard.
the Intel-AMD battle: until recently, Intel was perceived as being nearly invulnerable
in the CPU and system markets - AMD competed on price and performance, but customers
still tended to go with "Intel inside", especially when Intel kept lowering
prices in response to AMD.
the last six months, Intel has started to show signs of weakness; specifically,
the 'Saber' eight-way main board issues, the 'Coppermine' problems, and the
supply chain problems which led Gateway to go back to AMD. Alone, these issues
would be annoying to customers, but taken together they seem to point to Intel
having taken their eye off the ball.
who see AMD as a potential server alternative to Intel have been waiting for
about a year since the "Poseidon" chipset was first discussed. The recent (since
July, 1999) silence from AMD makes us wonder whether Poseidon (now called HotRail)
will become reality, and thus give Intel some multiprocessor competition.
Although we don't normally suggest users delve into the "innards" of a server
when making a purchasing decision, we feel it important that they do so this
time. As mentioned above, both Compaq and Dell are taking steps to ensure that
this problem does not reach the customer, the question should still be asked,
whether of Compaq/Dell, or the other, more reticent Intel server manufacturers.
(Note that at this writing, only Dell is on record as saying they will avoid
shipping suspect chip sets to customers. Others may adopt the same position,
but have not publicly stated so.)
users who have decided to purchase a server with the problem chip set, they
should sit tight, but should also exercise prudence in the form of obtaining
an appropriate guarantee from the server vendor re: chip set and any problems
it may cause.
users who can delay their purchase - do so. When the problem (eventually) gets
solved, this problem should be no reason to stay away from these products in
Messrs. Ruiz and Sanders (from AMD): you might want to have your engineers (and
those at HotRail, Inc.) redouble their efforts to provide an SMP chipset, so
you can take advantage of the next Intel mis-step - if it comes.