New PowerPC Platform in Fruition
by Eric Murphy

In the mid-90ís there was a promising movement for a new open computer architecture called the Common Hardware Reference Platform (CHRP) that utilized the IBM/Motorola PowerPC processor. Originally, the platform was to be able to run the Mac OS, Windows NT, Solaris, OS/2, and AIX. Also, the design was to be used with existing IBM-compatible peripherals, and some designs were shown with parallel and PS/2 ports. The name of CHRP was then officially changed to the more identifiable PowerPC Platform moniker in 1996.

The idea of the PowerPC Platform was exciting for many people, especially the Mac users, as the platform promised lower hardware prices and more flexibility. However, technical issues caused delay after delay, and most were caused by Apple, as they attempted to free the Mac OS from its ROM dependencies, and pondered whether the PowerPC Platform would help them or hurt them.

Soon it looked like the Mac OS was going to be the only OS left that would run on the PowerPC Platform, as the rest virtually deserted the movement. The Mac clone companies were working on their own machines, and Power Computing even displayed a PowerPC Platform laptop that was ready for production, but they publicly denounced Apple for holding back the product because of Mac OS issues.

Suddenly and swiftly, Apple killed Mac OS for the PowerPC Platform along with the Mac cloning licenses, effectively smothering the open platform ideology. Only IBM went on producing PowerPC Platform machines with AIX installed, and it was not a successful product line.

While Apple was restructuring and healing over the next few years, Be was able to produce a version of BeOS that could dual-install on a Power Macintosh, and up came Yellow Dog Linux that could do the same thing. Even though Apple kept their closed platform, it did not stop other OSes from being installable right along with the Mac OS, or possibly taking its place. However, recent Power Mac G3 and G4 designs have locked BeOS off of the Mac platform, while Yellow Dog Linux has been able to stay on top of the hardware changes.

Recently, IBM released its IBM's PowerPC Open Platform reference design to whoever wanted the information, therefore a company could use or enhance that specification to make their own PowerPC Platform motherboards. There was some initial excitement about this, but not much has happened since.

Target PC has gained access to information about a new open PowerPC platform and product from a company named Silicon Fruit of Richardson, Texas, which is located at the heart of the Telecom Corridor.

Our source tells us that the motherboard is being designed in France, and an add-in DSP card being created in Korea. Silicon Fruit does not have a centralized location for development, but instead relies on highly qualified employees all over the world, collaborating over the Internet. The company is funded by Angel investors.

For now, Silicon Fruit has two products in development, with the workstation product code-named the RioRed (named after the Red Grapefruit, which is the Texas State Fruit that is generally grown near the Rio Grande river), and a rack-mount server to follow at a later date. The RioRed is a next generation PowerPC-based computing platform; as it is legacy-free, and it almost did not even have PS/2 ports.

The RioRed also has many high-end and innovative features aimed at making it a successful platform for workstation environments. It has double 450 MHz PowerPC 7400 (G4) processors, each with their own 2 Meg cache running at 200 MHz. It also has two 66 MHz, 64 Bit PCI slots, a technology that has only been found on very high-end products, often used for RAID storage applications. Also of unique interest is the north bridge of the motherboard, which is the Avignon (IBM CPC710) chip. The Avignon also supports standard 100 MHz SDRAM at up to 2 Gigabytes total. However, the Avignon could be replaced by the IBM PowerPC 440 embedded processor that runs at 550 MHz, and by doing so, the platform will become even more impressive for vertical applications, all while being produced at lower cost.

A diagram of the technologies can be seen here:

The lone AGP slot is a 1x since it is just a 64-bit PCI slot in disguise. With video cards of today containing large memory amounts, performance differences between the AGP types are usually minimal.

The Viper is the AMD south bridge you can find on many Athlon boards. The Viper was used so the platform could use standard PC components for the "non-performance areas". The board will support Ultra DMA66; therefore working with the fastest new IDE hard drives.
Here is a diagram of the actual ATX motherboard:

You may also notice that the processors are used in a slot format, which are indeed Slot 1, but with different pinouts. However, the power and ground pins will be the same to prevent someone from damaging any x86 CPUs mistakenly put on the motherboard.

Silicon Fruit plans on shipping 50 boards out to developers in the first quarter of 2000, and then have a first production run of about 2,000. In the late second quarter, at the earliest, the RioRed motherboard will be shipping inside a workstation tentatively entitled the Metanium.

The Metanium workstation will be a very fresh workstation product with a lot of interesting new features. One example is the use of an LCD display on the tower that a person can use to see what is happening when the machine boots, and view in clear text what is wrong if problems arise, rather than relying on beep codes. It will also continuously display the uptime, CPU usage and temperature. For the over-clocking folks, there is even a function for automatically reducing clock speed it the CPU gets too hot.

Initially, Silicon Fruit will have a VA Linux-like business agenda, but also plans to sell boards to other Linux assemblers. The motherboards will ship with a copy of Yellow Dog Linux tuned for the RioRed.

Silicon Fruit is also making motions in an attempt to get the BeOS to run on its platform, as the OS would run very well on double G4 processors, and could work very well with the multimedia-enhanced AltiVec processing extensions.

Initial pricing for systems based on the RioRed should fall somewhere between the cost of a high-end PC and a dual G4 Power Mac, should they be released. Considering the power of the G4 processor, the RioRed will make a great foundation for an extremely powerful, yet low priced workstation.

Silicon Fruitís new platform may also be great for custom applications, as they are working with Berkeley University to make an advanced server cluster running highly processor intensive software applications.

Only time will tell if this second attempt at creating an open PowerPC platform will succeed. Considering the credentials of the PowerPC processor, and the openness of the Linux community, there should be room for Silicon Fruit to grow and succeed. At the very least, Silicon Fruit has potential in vertical applications.

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