Rambus Rolls Ahead (Slowly)

SAN FRANCISCO (02/11/2000) - Reports of the death of Rambus Dynamic Random Access Memory are greatly exaggerated.

Critics of RDRAM say product delays and high prices killed the memory standard before it could take hold. They argue that new, high-performance versions of SDRAM such as PC-133 and the upcoming Double Data Rate are less expensive and easier to implement.

But industry analysts, Rambus Inc., and the technology's supporters (including Intel) say most of its troubles are behind it. Advocates expect prices to come down and deployment to increase in 2000.

"Rambus has been the great holy war of the DRAM industry," says Sherry Garber, vice president of Semico Research, as some memory makers and PC manufacturers resisted moving to the new technology. However, while RDRAM took some hits during that war, it's certainly not dead, she says.

In fact, Semico sees RDRAM becoming quite viable this year in the high-end PC market, she says. It won't proliferate into the notebook, server, or low-end computer markets, but it will find its place in PCs for people who demand performance and who will pay upwards of $2500 for a desktop computer.

Price Problems

RDRAM prices will drop some later this year as more memory makers ramp up production, Garber says. But don't expect significant price decreases until 2001. And even then, it will still cost more than SDRAM, she says Kevin Krewell, senior analyst at the Microprocessor Report, says he too believes RDRAM will gain acceptance with power users this year who care little about cost. For everyone else, it's still too expensive, he says, adding that it's likely to remain so because it costs more to make, it's a larger chip, and there are licensing fees attached.

Just how much more expensive is RDRAM over its current competition? A quick visit to memory seller Kingston's Web site offers an illustration. A basic 128MB PC-133 SDRAM module sells for $343, while a basic RDRAM 128MB module will set you back $925.

The Need for Speed

But there's no denying that RDRAM provides performance advantages over standard SDRAM, Krewell says. That becomes important as processor speeds continue towards 1 GHz, and memory bandwidth becomes a bottleneck.

RDRAM's architecture lets it run memory operations at speeds of up to 800 MHz, while PC-133 SDRAM runs at 133 MHz. RDRAM has a peak bandwidth of up to 1.6GB per second, while PC-133 SDRAM can handle about 1.1GB per second.

In real-world terms that means RDRAM should improve the performance of high-end applications such as streaming media, high-end gaming, and video editing, Krewell says.

Rambus Inc. still has some image-mending to do after problems with its technology caused Intel to delay its RDRAM-supporting 820 chip set last year, Krewell says. But good technology can overcome a bad start, he says, and "there's no indication that Intel will back off from Rambus."

Intel and Rambus

Intel will continue to support RDRAM for high-end systems, says Intel spokesperson Dan Francisco.

The company is concerned about RDRAM pricing and availability, but he notes that it's "not atypical for new technologies to have a price premium." While Intel expects RDRAM to succeed in the performance computing category, the company sees conventional SDRAM as the right choice for the mainstream PC segment for some time to come. To that end, he says Intel will continue to support PC-100 SDRAM with its existing 810, 10e, and BX chip sets, and its upcoming 815 chip set will support PC-133 SDRAM.

Intel does not expect RDRAM to impact the server industry, Francisco says. In fact, the company expects the upcoming DDR (Double Data Rate) SDRAM to dominate that market by 2001. Microprocessor Report's Krewell agrees, and says simply that DDR "will win the server market."

DDR SDRAM is based on existing SDRAM technology, but its modifications help it achieve essentially twice the data rate of 100 MHz SDRAM, with peak bandwidths approaching that of RDRAM.

High-End PCs Only?

While analysts and even Intel don't expect RDRAM prices to drop low enough for inclusion in mainstream PCs any time soon, the folks at Rambus Inc. say it will happen this year.

Rambus Inc. is the company that developed the memory technology; it receives a licensing fee from memory manufacturers that make it.

"We don't agree with anyone who takes the position that Rambus will be only in the high end," says Avo Kanadjian, vice president of worldwide marketing at Rambus Inc. As memory manufacturers such as Samsung ramp up their production of RDRAM in 2000, the prices will drop significantly, he says.

"Today's supply cannot meet demand, so Rambus products have a price premium," he says. When the gap between supply and demands closes, RDRAM will work its way into the mainstream. He expects that to occur by next Christmas.

But even Kanadjian doesn't expect RDRAM prices to drop as low as SDRAM prices, he says. By the end of 2000, if RDRAM is down to a cost of 25 percent more than SDRAM, it will be successful, he says. The memory's superior performance justifies the increased cost, he says.

Kanadjian says he expects RDRAM to represent about 15 percent of the RDRAM market in 2000, and 50 percent by 2003.

Bob Eminian, vice president of memory marketing at Samsung, says the company is currently manufacturing about 90 percent of the world's RDRAM. Obviously, he wants the technology to succeed.

That said, however, Eminian is more cautious about projections for the coming year. He estimates RDRAM will make up from 7 to 10 percent of the DRAM market this year. He doesn't project further than that, but says he does expect prices to drop and RDRAM to make it into some mainstream PCs by the end of this year.

"As an industry we've put billions of dollars into developing this," Eminian adds. "We can't walk away from it."

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