Rambus standard rolls ahead (slowly)

Reports of the death of Rambus Dynamic Random Access Memory have been greatly exaggerated. Critics of RDRAM say product delays and high prices killed the mem-ory 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 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 this year.

"Rambus has been the great holy war of the DRAM industry," says Sherry Garber, vice president of Semico Research in the US. However, while RDRAM took some hits during that war, it's certainly not dead, she says.

In fact, Garber sees RDRAM becoming quite viable this year in the high-end PC market. 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 $US2500 for a desktop computer.

RDRAM prices will drop some time 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 adds.

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.

According to memory manufac-turer Kingston Technology, at the moment a basic 128MB PC-133 SDRAM module sells for $US343, while a basic RDRAM 128MB module will set you back $US925.

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

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

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.

And Intel will support RDRAM for high-end systems, says Intel spokesperson Dan Francisco, who expects RDRAM to succeed in the performance-computing category, but 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.

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

Despite these predictions Avo Kanadjian, vice president of worldwide marketing at Rambus does not agree "with anyone who takes the position that Rambus will be only in the high end". As memory manufacturers suchas Samsung ramp up their production of RDRAM in 2000, the prices will drop significantly, he says, with RDRAM working its way into the mainstream by next Christmas, though he doesn't expect RDRAM prices to drop as low as SDRAM prices. By the end of 2000, if RDRAM is down to a cost of 25 per cent more than SDRAM, it will be successful, he says.

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

Bob Eminian, vice president of memory marketing at Samsung, says the company is currently manufacturing about 90 per cent 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 per cent 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 the year.

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