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AMD Istanbul - Time for something new already?

A question of qualification

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Did anyone notice that AMD's roadmap puts maybe ten months between the company's 'Istanbul' Opteron and its next-gen server platform? That's an awfully small window when you're looking to qualify a multi-core server chip.

AMD has delivered the six-core Istanbul several months early, but the question is whether it will have a good ramp. In other words: Will it make some money? Technology isn't the issue. In this case, the issue is timing.

Launched last week, Istanbul plugs into existing Rev F machines as well as brand new models, such as HP's ProLiant G6 also launched last week. The six-core chip can stand toe-to-toe with Intel's 'Nehalem EP' Xeon 5500s for dual-socket servers, and chances are, it will best the 'Dunnington' Xeon 7400s as well.

That AMD has pulled Istanbul into initial shipments during May should mean it has a longer life than you might expect. But, as we reported back in April, the 8- or 12-core 'Magny-Cours' Opterons with their new G34 sockets are now scheduled for delivery the first quarter of 2010.

They started sampling this spring, and an official release is only 8 to 10 months away. Meanwhile, the 4- to 6-core 'Lisbon' Opterons with their C32 sockets will arrive in the second quarter of 2010.

Yes, after years of keeping the Opteron 2000 (two-socket) and Opteron 8000 (for four socket and larger) processors essentially the same, AMD is bifurcating its product line. Much like Intel has done with Xeon DP and MP platforms and now Xeon EP and EX platforms. Paired with those Magny-Cours processors (to be given the Opteron 6000 designation), the G34 platform is known as 'Maranello.' Joined by Lisbon (Opteron 4000), the C32 platform is dubbed 'San Marino.'

AMD has not given out the specs for the G34 or C32 sockets. But it's safe to assume that the G34 will have more than the Rev F socket's 1,207 pins and that the C32 will probably be a lot closer to the Rev F, maybe akin to the difference between an Opteron 1000 and an AM2 Athlon socket. (i.e. not a heck of a lot, but enough to keep separate platforms separated).

There's some talk from last year that the G34 socket has 1,974 pins. We're going to make the wild guess that the C32 will have 1,208 pins - one more for the extra HT3 link coming out of the package compared to the Rev F chips.

The point is: AMD is eager to blunt Intel's attack with four-socket 'Westmere' Xeon EP processors using 32 nanometer processes (due around the middle of 2010) and with eight-core 'Nehalem EX' Xeon 7500s (due to ship before the end of the year out of Intel's fabs and expected in systems in early 2010. But will anyone spring for Istanbul with Maranello and San Marino so close behind?

Qualifying a multi-core processor can take many months, and server customers typically standardize on a platform for a year to a year and a half. If you're going to spend the time, effort, and money to qualify new hardware, why not wait for Magny-Cours?

"In Intel's experience, a shorter product lifecycle can make it harder to ramp that product," Intel told us after we asks for comment on its rival's tiny Istanbul window.

"Customers tend to enjoy stability as well as performance. We have obtained direct feedback from our customers that getting single-socket systems to market takes a couple months of qualification, two-socket servers take a few months, and multi-socket servers can take up to six months to reach production qualification."

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