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AMD buys (a little) breathing room with Shanghai

Quad-core Opterons just in time for IT recession

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Today, x64 chip maker Advanced Micro Devices will launch its "Shanghai" quad-core Opteron processors for servers and workstations, concurrent with its annual financial analyst day meeting and ahead of schedule by AMD's reckoning.

The new chip - which offers more computing power, less heat dissipation, and better bang for the buck than its "Barcelona" replacement - closes some of the gaps that rival Intel has opened up with its Xeon x64 chips. And it gives AMD a chance to get its business back on track and get its server partners somewhat enthusiastic about AMD after a number of them got burned by the chip maker's delay in getting its initial quad-core chips out the door last year.

That gave Intel an opening to chew into market share gains that AMD made with single-core and dual-core Opterons since the product was launched in April 2003. And with a revamped, Core-based product line, the Xeons certainly have done that, despite some technical reasons why the Opteron design is better.

The Opterons were launched to much fanfare as the first 64-bit x86-compatible processor, and one with a funky interconnect called HyperTransport that looks an awful lot like the QuickPath Interconnect that Intel hopes to start rolling out in servers early next year and which makes its debut in the Core i7 processors any day now. While the tier one server vendors were a little cold to the Opterons at first, IBM played around a bit with one machine, and then Sun Microsystems said it would partner with AMD to create a new "Galaxy" server line, followed by Hewlett-Packard, which created Opteron variants in its ProLiant rack and BladeSystem blade server lines.

Dell eventually got into the act as well, and supercomputer maker Cray based a big part of its future on the Opteron too. When Intel got the jump on AMD with quad-core chips, that left Sun and Cray in the lurch and it left AMD to fend for itself with dual-core chips. A bug discovered in the Barcelona Opterons in late 2007, only a few months after AMD's first quad-core chips came out, pushed Barcelona shipments into the first quarter of this year. After that, heads rolled at AMD, the company rejiggered its engineering and quality control processes, and, according to John Fruehe, director of AMD's server and workstation division, did a very fast ramp.

"This is the fastest we have ever done from intial wafer to production parts," Fruehe says. Initial wafers were in early 2008, about the time Barcelona's bugs were worked out and production on that chip was ramping on a 65 nanometer process. AMD had not expected to be able to get Shanghai kickers out of its fabs until the very end of the fourth quarter of 2008 and into production systems, but depending on how you do the math, Fruehe says the chip is anywhere from 8 to 10 weeks ahead of schedule. (The first Shanghai parts hit the street in mid-October, apparently).

And that is all the more remarkable given that the chip is made in a new 45 nanometer water-immersion lithography technique that AMD is using for the first time. Fruehe says that AMD did not have to use immersion lithography for 45 nanometer chips, but chose to because it wants to gain experience with the technique well ahead of the 32 nanometer generation of processors, which do require it. Of course, this will mostly be a transition problem that AMD's soon-to-be-spunout foundry will have to cope with. Going forward, AMD will be a chip designer and marketer, and the Foundry Company, its fab spinout, will do the chip making.

Against this backdrop of wrenching change at AMD and an increasingly recessional IT spending environment enters the Shanghai Opterons, technically known as the 45 nm Quad-Core AMD Opteron Processors. Like I said, the Shanghai Opterons have four cores on a single die, and the chips plug into the same 1207-pin Socket F socket as the Barcelona and dual-core "Santa Rosa" Opterons. Each Shanghai core has 512 KB of L2 cache memory, and there is a shared 6 MB L3 cache on the chip, which is three times that offered on the Barcelonas. That extra L3 cache will be useful for supporting virtualized server environments, and so will the faster 800 MHz DDR2 main memory that the Shanghai chips support.

The good yields with the 45 nanometer processes used to make the Shanghai chips have also, according to Fruehe, allowed AMD to come out with 2.7 GHz standard parts (which have a 75 watt rating), and that is 200 MHz faster than the Barcelona Special Edition (SE) variants, which run at 2.4 GHz and 2.5 GHz and which burn 105 watts. This is a pretty big swing in performance per watt. And for standard parts, it means Shanghai has 400 MHz more oomph at the same 75 watts. Take your pick.

Because the Shanghai chips have the same pinout and thermals as the Barcelonas, server makers are going to be able to snap them into their products pretty easily.

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