Dewy, Cheatum, And Howe
Board problems affecting launch of DDR333
By Jack Robertson
(02/12/02 12:23 p.m. EST)
They say they're ready to give birth to a speedier generation of DDR SDRAM, but some of Taiwan's memory-chip suppliers may be experiencing false labor pains.
Though eager to populate the market with DDR333 and earnest in their claim that the chip is ready to take off in the market, vendors are being forced to reckon with an immature infrastructure that may dampen their hopes.
According to industry observers, companies making motherboards that will accept the chip's PC2700 memory modules are only now defining their Gerber board layouts. This has forced OEMs in most cases to put the higher-speed memory on motherboards that are unable to recognize or take advantage of DDR333's higher frequency.
Calling estimates of an imminent transition to DDR333 “too optimistic,” Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst at San Jose research firm MicroDesign Resources Inc., said it may be six months or more before the chips are shipping in volume.
“We're learning there is more to coming out with a new higher-speed DRAM than just cranking up the frequency,” Glaskowsky said. “The module boards need new routing and algorithms, and timing issues need to be ironed out.”
The board-level problem was reported recently by a leading DRAM supplier. The company found no issues when PC2700 modules were used in two of the motherboard's expansion slots. However, when modules were plugged into all three expansion slots, the memory frequently slipped back to a 266MHz frequency. Sources at the JEDEC industry standards group said this was because the PC2700 modules were plugged into motherboards that have not yet been designed to accept the higher-frequency memory.
Undeterred, Via Technologies Inc., Taipei, Taiwan, on Feb. 20 will host a coming-out party for the higher-speed chip in the form of the DDR333 Summit. DRAM maker Nanya Technology Corp. claims to have bragging rights as the first company out of the gate with the new chips, and is banking on reaping the early margins that typically come with new DRAM speed grades.
GigaByte Technology Co. Ltd. last week tried to address the infrastructure concerns by unveiling what it said is a PC2700-compatible board, but analysts said it will be months before the devices are available from multiple vendors.
In other areas, Via and Silicon Integrated Systems Inc. have made DDR333-compatible chipsets available since late last year. Via also plans to roll out a version of its KT333A chipset at this month's summit. PC chipset market leader Intel Corp. isn't expected to field a DDR333-enabled chipset until the third quarter, according to industry sources.
A number of module suppliers have already moved their designs into the validation phase, so interchangeable DDR333 modules will soon be readily available, said Arthur Sarnio, technical marketing manager at Smart Modular Technologies Inc., Fremont, Calif.
DRAM vendors have been selling limited quantities of DDR SDRAM for some time, mostly to graphics board makers, which connect the memory directly to their graphics processors without the need for core-logic ICs.
In the meantime, PC OEMs and module vendors must wait for board makers to lay out Gerber designs to cope with the higher clock speed. JEDEC only recently completed the electrical interface specification for Gerber boards, which leaves companies a great deal of latitude when it comes to actual board layout.
With the transition between the 266- and 333MHz versions of DDR hitting a few bumps, Rambus Inc. is touting its Direct Rambus DRAM as a tried and true alternative.
The chips run at 800MHz and are already selling at parity with DDR266, according to Frank Fox, vice president and general manager of RDRAM Solutions at Rambus, Los Altos, Calif. Fox said the cost/performance advantage of RDRAM will only increase when the market moves to DDR333.