Processor Whispers: About Austin powers and patents
by Andreas Stiller
Austin is not only the capital of Texas and home to Dell's headquarters, but also a hub of processor development. After all, processors from Intel (Atom), AMD and Apple are designed here. But there is another company...
It's been all but forgotten that, next to the big ones mentioned, you will also find a smaller processor company in Austin, the third of the remaining threesome of x86 developers: Centaur Technologies Inc. For 13 years now, the company has belonged to the Taiwanese chip manufacturer VIA technologies.
The last entries on the Centaur web site date back to the year 2009 though, and had Anand Lai Shimpi of AnandTech not visited and reported in detail about Centaur last year, there wouldn't have been much evidence of life. What Anand can do, I can do too, and so, after a visit to the Texas Advanced Computing Center, I made my way to suite 300 in "7600-C N. Capital of Texas Hwy" where the chief of the centaurs, Glenn Henry, was expecting me. In spite of dramatically poor financial figures for VIA – with around $86 million, the numbers for the first three quarters of 2012 are 23 per cent below the ones from last year – the 70-year-old is optimistic: "We don't cost much, so even a single per cent of the x86 cake is sufficient. Also, we have interesting new markets in China and increasingly in Brazil too." For years, the number of employees at his company – just below 100 – has remained mostly constant. And, ultimately, VIA boss Wenchi Chen is one of the richest citizens of Taiwan, with sufficiently deep pockets.
Currently, work is being done on the CN-R, a small quad-core processor designed for TSMC's 28nm process. About a year ago, Centaur released a processor called VIA Quadcore, internally referred to as CN-Q, which is divided onto two chips, in a similar way as the Pentium D was. Each single chip is a VIA Nano X2 manufactured in 40nm that was well able to compete with other chips of its class, like the Atom D510 and the AMD E-350. It is compatible with the classic Eden boards and a quad-core solution for mini-ITX boards was released a few weeks ago, the VIA EPIA P910.
Centaur still doesn't have an integrated memory controller, for external communication they are still using the VIA V4 bus with 1333MHz, which is mostly identical to the bus of the Pentium 4. It serves as a link to the much bigger companion chip from VIA with north and south bridge. However, according to Henry, there are plans to integrate the chips into a SoC. But first, the CN-R is supposed to hit the market in the classic format with clock speeds between 1.2 and 2GHz around mid-2013. Which market that's going to be, Henry doesn't know yet: tablets seem likely, the netbook market is all but dead, but there's still a niche market for small desktop PCs and mini-servers as well as the embedded sector.
A few highlights could make the chip stand out among the competition: AVX2 and an advanced PadLock unit with new cryptography operations – Atom and Bobcat/Jaguar don't offer either. In contrast to Intel's Haswell processor, however, CN-R will neither support fused multiply-add nor offer a transactional memory extension, as the effort would have been too expensive.
Just a few hours before I had arrived, another economically motivated cut had been decided: instead of the initially planned central L3 cache with 4MB, Centaur chose to go down to 2MB in order to save space, costs and, above all, energy. Centaur has to work on the latter in particular to be able to compete with the big players in the business.
But VIA/Centaur has another hot iron in the fire that might secure much income in the future: lots of patents. Henry pointed out that, from the very beginning, he has made sure that his patents are "litigation proof", which means that they are suitable for use in court. Many hundreds of patents have been granted to Centaur, a portion of which decorates the hallways of the office level in the form of printed metal plaques on wooden frames.
Particularly interesting are the U.S. patents number 6253312: "Method and apparatus for double operand load" as well as 6253311 and 6754810: "Instruction set for bi-directional conversion and transfer of integer and floating point data."
The technologies and instruction sets described within these patents are used by all current ARM processors, Henry says, and so they looked for one of the wealthiest ARM license holders and sued it: Apple. Alongside the civil action in the District Court of Delaware, which has grown accustomed to patent disputes by now, a complaint of unfair competition according to section 337 has been filed with the International Trade Commission (ITC), which acts much faster than civil courts do.
The hearing took place this summer and the administrative law judge (ALJ), Thomas B. Pender, intends to announce his eagerly anticipated "initial determination" in the case 337-TA-812 on November the 9th. The final decision is scheduled for March 2013 – in the worst case, Apple might be facing a ban on iPhone and iPad imports into the U.S.
This is the third time that VIA's boss is trying to get hold of Apple profits. VIA had already brought out the big guns last year, through the smartphone manufacturer HTC, which is tightly connected to VIA through family bonds – the wife of VIA's boss is chairwoman at both companies. Also, HTC had bought VIA's graphics chip company S3 for $300 million last year, which, as one of its first actions, launched complaints against Apple with the ITC. However, both complaints were rejected because, amongst other things, some of the patents in question had been sold to AMD in the meantime. But this time it's not about a Chinese company, but about an American subsidiary company and well-founded patents – this could get interesting.