Transmeta takes on Intel

Where did Intel get the performance-per-watt idea? Transmeta says it knows

Intel’s legal staff might as well buy homes in Delaware. That’s the venue for AMD’s anti-trust action against Intel, and this month, Transmeta petitioned the same Delaware Federal District Court to find that Intel has violated 10 of Transmeta’s patents. The killer patent of the group is the one granted Transmeta in August. It relates to adaptive power control, which, you may be aware, Intel claims to have mastered in Core microarchitecture.

According to the complaint, Intel and Transmeta were working together until a dustup over the value of Transmeta’s IP (intellectual property). Transmeta says that Intel folded up its checkbook but kept using Transmeta IP in Intel designs. Having just declared itself the new papa of the green x86, it looks bad that Intel might have let a little of Transmeta’s 1-watt 32-bit x86 leak into Intel’s performance-per-watt chips.

Transmeta’s not some down-and-outfit that’s using a blindly issued patent to shake down a wealthy neighbor. In 1995, Transmeta set out to create a metaprocessor, a CPU that could assume the personality of another. Transmeta first created Crusoe, a uniquely flexible CPU with a native VLIW (very long instruction word) architecture. Itanium is another VLIW design, but as opposed to Intel, Transmeta never required developers to code to its CPUs’ native architectures. Instead, Transmeta wrote Code Morphing software to translate x86 instructions into native VLIW operations on the fly. Any 32-bit x86 software you choose runs, unmodified, on a Transmeta CPU. Translated code is cached, so Transmeta processors -- the current being Efficeon -- speed up as they learn the instruction mix of your applications.

The Code Morphing software not only translates x86 code to VLIW in real time; it analyzes the code it’s translating and makes fine-grained adjustments to CPU voltage and clock frequency based on performance demands and thermal conditions. It’s key that Efficeon doesn’t rely on the OS to measure load and change speed and voltage. Efficeon and Code Morphing measure and adjust to demand by themselves. Transmeta calls this LongRun, and LongRun2 pushes power-saving technology further by greatly reducing the amount of current that transistors leak while they’re in the “off” state. These are holy grails for CPU makers, and they’re Transmeta’s golden IP.

Transmeta claims that Efficeon, which implements LongRun but not LongRun2, requires as little as 1 watt of power in active operation. To put that in perspective, the halt state that PCs enter when input devices are idle uses just six-tenths of a watt.

AMD struck a deal with Transmeta in June to license Efficeon’s technology and brand, creating the AMD Efficeon processor. AMD will sell this chip to OEMs targeting underserved foreign markets. It is telling that AMD tapped Transmeta despite the fact that AMD has low-cost, low-power x86 CPUs in its own catalog. AMD is a Transmeta competitor, yet AMD recognizes Transmeta as the go-to for 32-bit low-power x86. Most of the major computer makers in Asia, including Fujitsu and Toshiba, are already Transmeta licensees.

If Transmeta IP or lessons learned from it did get into Pentium 4, Core, and Core 2 CPUs as the complaint alleges, Intel should pony up -- and not because it’s cheaper to pay than go to trial. Any Transmeta inventions that Intel used would be pivotal in positioning Intel as the self-described performance-per-watt leader.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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