Summary: NVIDIA's nForce3 Pro chipset is designed for the Opteron workstation environment. With its single chip design, nForce3 supports Opteron's 128-bit dual channel memory architecture and features Serial ATA 150, ATA-133 and six-channel audio. Read all about this new nForce product right here!
AMD’s Opteron processor is being poised to break all the rules of high-end computing. 64-bit architectures aren’t entirely new Sun, HP, and Intel have all been in the game longer than AMD. What separates AMD’s Opteron from previous efforts are two critical points: full compatibility with existing 32-bit software and price.
Since this is an article geared towards the nForce3 Pro, we won’t get into too many of the specifics of the Opteron. For that analysis, please refer to our article on the technology behind Opteron. But the price factor in particular could be one of the keys to Opteron’s success. Before Opteron, 64-bit CPUs cost thousands of dollars alone. In contrast, dual processor Opteron 200 series systems should start at approximately $3,000.
As a result of this, 64-bit computing has traditionally been priced entirely out of the range of the workstation market, much less consumers. Opteron and later, Athlon 64, will bring 64-bit to entirely new markets, which will also give AMD a unique edge in these segments, areas where AMD has historically had difficulty penetrating with the success it has had on the consumer desktop. One of these spaces is the workstation segment. Athlon MP has had some design wins here, and as Alan discovered in his Quadro FX workstation article, AMD has a compelling alternative to Intel’s Xeon family.
Having a blazing CPU means nothing without the proper parts around it however. We’ve seen plenty of platforms brought down by core logic over the years: the Pentium III with 820, AMD’s Athlon with VIA KT266, and most recently the Pentium 4 with 845 and SDRAM are just a few examples.
NVIDIA will be producing two nForce3 Professional variants: the nForce3 Pro 150 (which is available now) and the nForce3 Pro 250, which will be available in the fall. Here are the key specs for the nForce3 Pro 150:
NVIDIA enterprise-class networking technology
NVIDIA RAID Technology
Triple Fast Ultra ATA-133 disk drive controllers
AGP 8X Interface
AC’97 2.1 compliant interface
SPDIF output (Stereo or AC-3 output)
Single chip design
If you recall the Opteron architecture, the memory controller is now integrated on the CPU itself, rather than the North Bridge of the chipset. The integrated memory controller is good for CPU’s performance, as it significantly reduces latency and increases memory bandwidth.
We’ve also found that an inefficient memory controller can hamper overall system performance. For example, VIA had to rework the memory controller in its KT266 chipset, hence the KT266A was born. By removing the chipset’s memory controller from the equation, AMD has more control over system performance, regardless of chipset.
NVIDIA’s single chip design makes life even easier for motherboard manufacturers, as the simplified board design gives them even more flexibility, but all the credit can’t go to the CPU’s integrated memory controller. Like other nForce products, nForce3 Pro utilizes a 0.15-micron manufacturing process, allowing NVIDIA to cram more features on the chip. This also lowers power consumption and dissipated heat. Another benefit of single chip chipset architectures is reduced latency, increasing platform performance.
SIDEBAR: The nForce3 Pro contains 15 million transistors
nForce3 Pro 150’s feature set is already well above AMD’s 8000 series chipset, but later this year NVIDIA will be adding the nForce3 Pro 250 to its product lineup. The nForce3 Pro 250 builds largely off the design of the Pro 150, the key additions being an integrated Silicon Image SATA link and transport layer for native Serial ATA support. (nForce3 Pro 150 can support Serial ATA through the third IDE controller, but an external chip will be required.) Four Serial ATA ports and two IDE channels are supported by the nForce3 Pro 250. Like nForce3 Pro 150, RAID Levels 0, 1, and 0+1 are also natively supported.
The second addition with nForce3 Pro 250 is Gigabit Ethernet.
Both chips will be pin compatible with each other (688 pins total), making the nForce3 Pro 250 a drop-in replacement once it’s available. This will ease development and manufacturing costs for motherboard manufacturers, bringing nForce3 Pro 250 motherboards to market sooner.
NVIDIA’s launch partner for nForce3 Pro is ASUS. This probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, as ASUS was also NVIDIA’s launch partner for nForce and nForce2. We’re not certain of all the details on this product, but we do know its name, the SK8N. The SK8N will be based on the nForce3 Pro 150 platform processor and should be available in June -- right around the same time Opteron 100 series processors will be launched.
Unlike VIA and AMD, whose K8T400M and 8000 chipsets are truly built for use in servers and adapted for workstation use by throwing on an external AGP slot, NVIDIA has built nForce3 Pro from the ground up for the workstation market.
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