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AMD putting chips in place for Intel attack

Posted: 07 May 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:AMD Barcelona processor? Barcelona quad-core microprocessor? AMD Intel processor?

As Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) moves closer to the release of Barcelona, one thing is clear with analysts: the highly anticipated quad-core microprocessor alone won't be AMD's weapon of mass destruction against Intel.

Instead, Barcelona, the next generation of AMD's Opteron processor for workstations and servers, is expected to buy AMD a bit of time with a short-lived performance boost against its larger rival.

"Barcelona should put AMD back in the race, if not in the lead, in the server market," said In-Stat analyst Jim McGregor. "But this by no means is a complete cure for AMD."

In an interview with InformationWeek, Randy Allen, corporate vice president of AMD's server and workstation division, said performance and ease of adoption by computer makers were behind AMD's confidence in Barcelona.

Over the last couple of years, AMD has built the launch pad for Barcelona with the success of its current dual-core Opteron, which until the end of last year boosted AMD's market share at Intel's expense. Opteron today is offered by all the major x86 server makers, such as Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and now Dell.

In moving OEMs from dual-core to quad-core machines, AMD is using the same no-design-change strategy as its move from single-core to dual-core several years ago. Manufacturers only need to change the BIOS on new machines. Barcelona will fit into the same socket as the older chips. "There's a very low resistance path to adoption," Allen said.

Of course, better performance without increasing power consumption will be key to corporations, particularly one of AMD's key sectors: financial services. AMD believes it has that base covered; claiming Barcelona will deliver a 70 percent performance boost over its duo-core Opteron, while consuming the same amount of power.

AMD plans to release a full set of third-party benchmarks for Barcelona vs. Intel's Xeon quad-corecodenamed Clovertownwhen Barcelona launches. In the meantime, AMD is tossing some numbers that it says back the argument that Barcelona will be better.

Last month, AMD introduced test results based on the SPECcpu2006 benchmarks that showed Barcelona would have up to a 50 percent advantage in floating-point performance, and 20 percent in integer performance.

Allen was quick to toss the same numbers, in playing down the fact that Intel's switch from a 65 nm manufacturing process to 45 nm is expected to give it faster and smaller transistors in the core, and lower power consumption. Intel will offer 45nm chips this year, while AMD won't have any available until the second half of next year.

Allen said AMD Opteron grabbed market share from Intel while the latter was using a 65nm process and AMD a 90nm process. "It's very clear that it's not the deciding factor," he said.

May be so, but some analysts see more of a mixed bag in Barcelona performance. "Take floating point out of the equation, and they're holding up their own, not pulling ahead of Intel," said Martin Reynolds, analyst for Gartner.

While floating point is important, few business applications make use of it. Floating-point is more important to high-performance computing and video encoding.

AMD's channel strategy
AMD is still working off its AMD64 architecture, which was built for servers. As a result, the company lags behind Intel in chips for mobile computers, the fastest growing segment of the computer industry, McGregor said. AMD's technology is better suited for servers and desktops.

Beyond technology, AMD also will have to straighten out its channel strategy. The company last year focused heavily on meeting the demands of its newest OEM partner, Dell, at the expense of white box makers and retailers that are major buyers of AMD chips, Reynolds said. "They let the channel slide, to get the business with Dell."

Despite the hurdles, AMD's Allen expects the industry to move to Barcelona at a pace similar to the switch from AMD single-core chips to duo core in 2005. Within two quarters of the latter's introduction, 50 percent of AMD's shipments were duo core, he said. "I expect the ramp from duo core to quad core to be similar."

At the same time, Barcelona will nibble away at the market for RISC processors, which continue to lose share to x86. Sun Microsystems and IBM, which also sell x86 servers, are among the leading makers of RISC chips. "We still think it's important for us to keep eating into (the RISC market)," Allen said. However, AMD is more focused on grabbing a bigger share of the far larger x86 market dominated by Intel.

Sales of x86 servers slowed in 2006, as companies waited for the introduction of quad-core servers, according to Gartner. The market for RISC-Itanium Unix servers, however, was weaker, with worldwide shipments and revenue falling 1.6 percent and 0.8 percent, respectively.

- Antone Gonsalves

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