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AMD shoots low and wide with Opteron 4100s

The server limbo, Lisbon style

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The x64 server chip refresh cycle may feel done, but there's still one more to go to finish the work that Intel and Advanced Micro Devices started in March. AMD is getting ready to launch its "Lisbon" Opteron 4100 processors, which are slated for delivery sometime in the third quarter.

When the twelve-core "Magny-Cours" Opteron 6100 processors were announced at the end of March, word leaked of impending machines, but not so with the Opteron 4100s. The Opteron 6100s were aimed at the belly of the market, which is two-socket or four-socket servers, and crammed two six-core processors in the same G34 socket to yield those dozen cores. These Magny-Cours processors have a big limitation in that they can only see up to 512 GB of main memory across a four-socket system - significantly less than Intel's "Nehalem-EX" Xeon 7500 processors for machine with 2, 4, 8, or more sockets.

But that said, AMD has put a G34 platform out that spans from 16 to 48 cores using the same chipset. In effect, AMD is offering Xeon 7500 and Itanium 9300 performance at Xeon 5600 prices, to over-simplify a little. AMD calls this removing the 4P tax, which El Reg discussed at length at the Opteron 6100 launch. Here's a pretty picture AMD put together to show this:

AMD Opteron vs Intel Xeon Pricing

AMD is not careless with the data it releases, and it intentionally put the Opteron 4100 chips on this chart to show not only that the future Lisbon processors for single-socket and two-socket boxes would undercut whatever Xeons Intel would muster for similar machines, but that the Opteron 4100s would undercut AMD's prior generation of Rev F 1000 Series and 2000 Series quad-core processors.

The entry Lisbon part, presumably with four cores out of six working on the die, will cost a mere $99, and the top-end part, which has six cores and which AMD has confirmed will run at 2.8 GHz. According to the data from March, the top-end Opteron 4100 part will cost a mere $455. (Those are single-chip prices when customers buy in 1,000-unit trays, as is the standard for Intel and AMD pricing.) With the Opteron 4100s, AMD is basically removing the 2P tax and getting rid of having to make two different chips to support 1P or 2P servers.

The way AMD sees it, there are certain customers who want full-function, high-bandwidth, high capacity (in terms of memory capacity and core count) servers suitable for big jobs, like hosting lots of virtual machines or data bases, and then there are others who will want cheap 1P or 2P boxes and have more modest needs for bandwidth or capacity. The two chips that AMD is putting into the field do a better job of hitting the belly of the market (2P) and its fringes (1P and 4P) than the three Opteron flavors that were sold for the past seven years did. But AMD has ceded the 8P market and any fat memory 2P and 4P configurations to the Xeon 7500 until the "Bulldozer" core is done and slapped into Opterons next year.

There is very little talk from the server vendor community about what future Opteron 4100 server designs they are working on, and part of the problem there is that Sun Microsystems used to be the most vocal and enthusiastic supporter of the Opteron, but is, as El Reg previously reported, in the process of killing off its Opteron machines. (Something Oracle may even admit to publicly at some point).

IBM was also big on the Opterons for a couple of years, but has yet to field an Opteron 6100 machine, much less talk about a future Opteron 4100 box. Dell and Hewlett-Packard have put out a few Opteron 6100 boxes, and HP is getting ready to do a few more, as we told you last week. According to sources familiar with HP's plans, there are no Opteron 4100 machines in the works for June, but both Dell and HP, which have large custom server businesses, could be building machines for hyperscale data center customers and we wouldn't even know it.

Getting people at Dell's Data Center Solutions bespoke server unit to admit they have even built custom servers using AMD chips is like ripping out your own wisdom teeth, but El Reg got them to admit it back in March when they mainstreamed some of the custom boxes as the PowerEdge C series.

AMD is acutely aware that the Opteron 4100 is not going to get the same kind of splash that the Opteron 6100s did back in March, but Vlad Rozanovich, director of the enterprise and public sector business at AMD, says that the Lisbon chips are most definitely going to find homes in the data centers and data closets of the world, and probably under quite a few desks as well.

Rozanovich reiterated that the Opteron 4100 processor will come in standard, highly efficient (HE), and extremely efficient (EE) variants, with the latter two being low voltage and lower clockspeed parts that really cut back on the energy. The C32 platforms were designed predominantly for hyperscale data centers, where core count and memory bandwidth and capacity were not as important as having a low-power, small server form factor. While AMD has not yet divulged the feeds and speeds of the Opteron 4100s, Rozanovich said that at 5.3 watts per core, as gauged by AMD's ACP thermal ratings, quite a few customers are going to be very interested in the EE parts. (That works out to 32 watts ACP per chip).

AMD doesn't want to tip its hand ahead of the Opteron 4100 launch too much, but Rozanovich said the usual suspects in the motherboard crowd (with Super Micro no doubt leading the pack) are working on boards with either one or two sockets. And he added that there will be multiple tier one server makers getting boxes out the door using the chips, in both 1P and 2P setups - these will not just be white-box or bespoke machines.

Rozanovich said further that AMD expected twin server configurations (where two whole servers are crammed side-by-side in a single chassis) would be especially popular for hyperscale and HPC customers. And with that top-end 2.8 GHz clock speed, which is considerably higher than the 2.2 GHz of the dozen-core Opteron 6100 part and which draws closer to the six-core Xeon X5670 from Intel (which spins at 2.93 GHz and which is the fastest 95 watt (TDP, not ACP) part Intel sells, the Opteron 4100 will be popular among some HPC customers whose software licenses are priced based on the number of cores. Having fewer faster cores can be a lot less expensive on the software bill than lots of slower cores.

Given the very low price of the entry Lisbon processors, AMD is also expecting them to be very popular in emerging markets and among SMBs for entry tower servers, places where you might see an Intel Celeron, Pentium, or Core 2 Duo chip used in a box today. They will possibly end up in cheap rack boxes where customers are squeezing their budgets and can only afford bare-bones machines, or even in midrange workstations, but it is unlikely that Opteron 4100s will make it into standard blade servers from IBM, HP, Dell, or Fujitsu. But anything is possible. ®

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