The VIA Eden (Looking Back)

I wrote this article back in 2006 for The Network Stability Resource. Now that it is 2013, let’s take a look at what has happened.

Original article:

VIA Eden Processors, by George Liu (1/26/2006)

For such a young company, VIA is extremely diversified. Based in Taipei , VIA produces chipsets, audio solutions, CPUs, and graphics solutions through their S3 division. VIA is an interesting company, being entirely fabless, like nVidia and ATi. They do not have the factories to produce chips, but they design and contract the manufacturing out to foundries such as TMSC and IBM. Most interesting are VIA’s CPU solutions, as they have an entirely different audience than standard CPU manufacturers. A devoted following has sprung up around VIA’s CPUs, even creating a Linux distribution, EpiOS, for VIA’s embedded mini-ITX EPIA boards. This ultra-small form factor crowd is extremely creative, even modding toasters into computers with these tiny CPUs.

Based on the Cyrix designs, the Eden processor was designed by a tiny 85 person team in Austin. VIA also sells the C3 (Nehemiah C5P) processor and the C7 (Esther C5J) processor. The Eden processor is also based on the Esther core, essentially a C7 with much lower Thermal Design Power, or the maximum heat that the processor creates. C7 processors run up to 2.0GHz and up to 20W TDP. Both lines are manufactured at IBM Microelectronic’s East Fishkill fab, on a 90nm Silicon On Insulator process. Both use the NanoBGA2 (Ball Grid Array) package, with a 21x21mm size. The Eden-N comes in a 15x15mm package, smaller than a penny. Typically, VIA processors are sold as part of an embedded ITX platform, so most processors will come in a complete package around $300-400 capable of everyday computing tasks. This brings the price of a ITX based system to about $500, comparable to a basic PC, but more expensive for the performance.

Here are some of the features of the Eden family:

  • Advanced design:VIA CoolStream architecture and the VIA V4 Bus allow for an extremely efficient, fanless design.
  • Small size: IBM’s 90nm SOI process shrinks the chip down to 21x21mm.
  • Power saving features: VIA PowerSaver allows the chip to reduce clock speed to save power, while VIA TwinTurbo uses two PLL’s to ensure smooth computing while adjusting clock speeds.
  • Low TDP:The Esther chips have a maximum TDP of 7.5W and 3.5W for 1.5GHz and 1.0GHz chips. Both idle at 0.5W.
  • VIA PadLock Security Engine: Two Quantum-based RNGs, AES Encryption Engine.
  • Extra Security:SHA-1 and SHA-256 hashing, hardware based Montgomery Multiplier (up to 32kb key length), NX bit.
  • VIA StepAhead Technology Suite: MMX, SSE2, and SSE3 instruction sets, 128KB L2 cache with 32-way associativity, full speed FPU, 16-stage pipeline.

Some VIA Technologies

VIA’s chips use a 16 stage pipeline, comparable to most modern processors, the Pentium 4 excluded. A longer pipeline allows a chip to reach higher clock speeds, and a shorter pipeline is more efficient. With lower clock speeds, these chips can run at lower voltages, and ultimately use less power. Additionally, VIA uses a technology called PowerSaver, similar to Intel’s SpeedStep, to reduce battery drain. VIA uses two Phase-Locked Loops, one running at a high clock speed and one running at a low speed. This lets the chip switch speeds within a single processor cycle, giving the user a seamless experience. Chips with only one PLL need more than one processor cycle to switch speeds, causing the user to experience a bit of lag. Eden chips have a tiny L2 cache and a larger L1 cache than most, with both at 128KB. This is twice the L2 cache of the C3 processor, and 1/16th the cache of a Pentium M (Dothan). The Eden chips aggressively prefetch, making up for their smaller L2 cache and slow FSB.

Generally, Eden chips are poor performers for CPU intensive tasks such as gaming and media creation. The Eden chip excels at one thing no other chip does, however. Its ability to encrypt and decrypt content enables users to have a completely encrypted hard drive, with almost no performance loss. For this reason, all VIA chips are excellent solutions for Linux based routers, storage solutions, and SFF applications.

VIA has recently produced a new solution, the Eden ULV chip. These chips are the fastest Eden chips to date, running at up to 1.5GHz, and also the lowest power, with a maximum power draw of 7.5W. While nothing spectacular, they show the evolution of the Eden line and the highly efficient ‘Esther’ design. VIA claims an increase of up to 30% with these new processors. This is about right, since the chip has a 25% increase in clock speed. The performance per watt, Intel’s new measure of performance, is incredible, but, the chips are still only about a third as fast as the newest Pentiums.

VIA has had high ambitions for their chips, once reaching for 3GHz. They are excellent chips, excelling in a few areas: security and efficiency, but lacking the performance or marketing that Intel and AMD possess. The Eden chips are not unprofitable, since they can be used in industrial applications, automobiles, and EPIA based computers, but theirs is more of a niche market. It is the hope of a great many of us that VIA can enhance the performance of its chips to the level of at least a Pentium M, at which point they would be able to capture a significant portion of the laptop market. VIA’s C7 chips reach 2 GHz, and dual core is in the works, but the small architecture and power goals limit the performance potential of the chip. It will be an exciting day when VIA can break into the mainstream market, but for now, this minor speed upgrade is enough.

 

So, what happened to VIA? The Eden processor was succeeded by the Nano in 2008, but there is hardly any news at all about VIA these days, aside from the use of a VIA ARM-based processor to power a computer-in-a-book.

Frankly, VIA has been made irrelevant by Intel’s focus on low-power, high-efficiency x86 chips and the emergence of the ARM-based technologies in smartphones and tablets. Business leaders at VIA must recognize how futile it is to create a mediocre chip in a struggling market. Even in its best of days, VIA had far less than 1% market share, and now that ARM and low-power x86 are more efficient, less expensive, and more powerful than VIA chips, even VIA has moved from x86 to ARM. And likely, VIA talent has migrated from VIA to VIA-linked companies, such as HTC.

Still, VIA had a few very unique ideas, which allowed it to find very niche success. It was one of the first companies to recognize that low-power, tiny chips would become necessary for the future. But as the example of Microsoft and Apple’s tablets prove, being the pioneer in a new market doesn’t always translate into success. Sometimes markets are too niche and too innovative for mainstream consumers.

The VIA Eden (Looking Back)
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