MetaRAM Busts RAMBUS Stranglehold?

Sand Hill Road envies RAMBUS. Oh, they don’t envy them their lawsuits, precarious business model or turbulent management structure. But they do envy them their ruthless monopoly of the high-speed DRAM market. RAMBUS successfully competed against the behemoths with a clever architectural enhancement, kept belief in their approach against huge odds, fought back as hard and dirty as the big boys and made licensing deals stick. They are survivors.

When RAMBUS went IPO back in 1997, I was completing work on the first preliminary patent application for InterProphet’s SiliconTCP technology, while William began his hunt for investment. RAMBUS’s IPO was on the minds of many VCs, but it wasn’t in a good way, surprisingly. RAMBUS’s 7 prior years had been fraught with changes in business model and personnel. Instead of setting up a fab, RAMBUS chose to license their technology. Finally, RAMBUS chose to make their stand on the basis of their patents. Don’t let me fool you — investors may crab about the need for “intellectual property protection” but when it comes to playing with the big boys, they believe about as much in IPR as the tooth fairy.

RAMBUS has been remarkably successful in defending and enhancing their patents (and yes, I know about their “steering committee” games — coming from the OS side I’ve seen Microsoft and others play the same games, even to the point of doing software patents on work pre-existing by decades). Essentially, they’ve played dirty like Intel, Hynix and all the other guys the VCs said you could never win against. But it has been a very long wild and crazy ride for the payoff — too much for the “10x in 3 years” crowd.

But despite all of RAMBUS’s remarkable turbulence, it has been amazingly successful. During one incredible record-setting day in 1998, I listened to a top-tier VC say that he’d never want a single share of RAMBUS’s stock no matter *how* much money they made. He just hated them. Another top-tier VC rambled on about how “you could make a lot of money with a RAMBUS business model, but they weren’t interested in that”. What they really hated is how there wasn’t a single massive success where they could bow and take their winnings (like VMWARE in 2006 for example, but they didn’t invest in that one either because it was run by a husband-wife team that believed open source was valuable — hmm, beginning to see a pattern). As Magdelena Yesil (at the time partner at USVP) liked to intone to me “Venture Capitalists are more capitalist than venture these days”. Chip risk wasn’t as exciting when you could respin any company as an Internet venture and go public with no revenue. And semiconductor companies *are* risky.

Semiconductor companies are also the historical lifeblood of Silicon Valley — hey, that’s why it’s called “Silicon Valley” and not “Internet Valley”! So now we come to MetaRAM, an attempt to steal RAMBUS’s monopoly on architecture. According to Ryan Block of Engadget “MetaRam uses a specialized “MetaSDRAM” chipset that effectively bonds and addresses four cheap 1Gb DRAM chips as one, tricking any machine’s memory controller into using it as a 4x capacity DIMM.”

Is the technology innovative? Not likely — it sounds like a combination cache and bank decoder, which is not innovative in the least. In fact, you need 4x the number of components on the DIMM, which means 4x the number of current spikes and decoupling capacitors, even if you put the chips together in the same package. Because you have a fifth chip, you complicate things even more. There is no way you can approach the triple-zero (volume, power, cost) sacred to chip designers with such a design, because one single high-speed high-capacity chip will eventually win out given the proliferation of small expensive gadgets demanding the lowest of volume and power. In a world of gadgets like IPODs, cellphones, laptops, PDAs and the like, cost is very important but *not* the most important quantity. So RAMBUS doesn’t have a lot to worry about here.

Hynix has been fighting a losing battle against RAMBUS ever since getting hit with a whopping $306M patent infringement judgment in 2006 (since reduced to $133M), and RAMBUS is still going for more. These are the same guys who pleaded guilty in 2005 to a DOJ memory price-fixing scheme from 1999-2002 and paid a $185M fine. There is no love lost in the memory biz.

So where does little MetaRAM come in. When technology fails, maybe a clever business model will do. MetaRAM’s big claim to fame is cost reduction — not for gadgets or laptops, but according to Fred Weber, CEO of MetaRAM, for “personal supercomputers” and “large databases”. And who is the big licensee for this so-called technology. Why, it’s Hynix of course, who announced they will make this lumbering memory module. They claim it will be lower power. I think I’d like an independent evaluation on this point, but it will probably be lower cost. Is it worth it? Given reliability considerations, that also remains to be seen. But the moral of this saga is simple — human memories are longer than memory architectures in this business, and the real puppet-master behind the throne (Kleiner-Perkins) is sure to walk away with the money. I wish I could say the same for the customers.

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Lynne

Lynne Jolitz is a Silicon Valley OS pioneer, inventor, and startup founder.

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