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AMD ships 'Interlagos' Opteron 6200 chips

Ramp to Q4 servers underway

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Let the next battle in the x64 server wars begin.

Advanced Micro Devices is shipping its 16-core "Interlagos" processors and generating revenue from it, the company announced today. In fact, the Opteron 6200s, as the chips will presumably be called at launch in the fourth quarter, started coming out of the 32 nanometer wafer-bakers of GlobalFoundries in Dresden, Germany in August.

"This is a monumental moment for the industry as this first 'Bulldozer' core represents the beginning of unprecedented performance scaling for x86 CPUs," said Rick Bergman, senior vice president and general manager of AMD's Products Group, in a statement announcing the shipments. "The flexible new Bulldozer architecture will give Web and datacenter customers the scalability they need to handle emerging cloud and virtualization workloads."

The important thing for AMD as it tries to rebuild its server business is that these chips are coming out on time even though GlobalFoundries was having issues with its 32 nanometer processes and AMD has been operating without a CEO since January. Two weeks ago, AMD hired Rory Read, formerly president and chief operating officer of Chinese PC and server maker Lenovo and a 23-year veteran of IBM, as its new CEO. Read can't take credit for the Opteron 6200 launch.

Slipping into a G34 socket

AMD reminded everyone that the Opteron 6200s plug into the same G34 sockets as the "Magny-Cours" Opteron 6100s that launched in March 2010. This means that server makers just have to qualify the new chips on existing platforms rather than engineer new ones. Considering that Hewlett-Packard and Dell were the only big server makers embracing the Opteron 6100s, with some tepid support from IBM with one machine and enthusiastic but ineffective support from server upstart Acer, AMD had better be hoping that server makers actually put more designs in the field.

It would be good to get Oracle back on board with Opterons. Oracle killed off its Opteron server line in May 2010, and Fujitsu has never been big on Opterons, either. If AMD wants to compete with Intel and gain market share as it did five years ago, it needs the big five server makers pushing Opterons, and with a certain amount of vigor. The absolutely agnostic and dependable adoption by whitebox server and motherboard maker Super Micro is not sufficient.

Supercomputer makers Cray and Silicon Graphics give the Opterons some play, but that could and probably will change unless Read makes some big moves. Cray's XE line of supers uses only Opteron chips, but future machines are expected to use either Xeon or Opteron processors. SGI has hitched its NUMAlink 5 interconnect for its Altix 1000V supercomputers to Intel's Xeon EX family (currently the Xeon 7500 and E7 processors) after unhitching it from Itanium two years ago.

The Opteron 6100s that are still selling today are essentially two six-core Opteron chips sharing a single socket, with two partial duds side-by-side giving an eight-core socket option; the G34 sockets and related chipsets can be used to make machines with two or four sockets. The Opteron 6100s were fabbed in 45 nanometer processes and used a core that was very similar to the "Istanbul" Opteron 2400 and 8400 processors that came out in June 2009.

The most important question, and one that cannot be answered until the Interlagos chips and Intel's "Sandy Bridge-EN" and "Sandy Bridge-EP" Xeon E5 processors come out in the fourth quarter, is this: Can the Opteron 6200s offer a sustainable performance and pricing advantage over Intel's Xeons?

Feeds but no speeds

Back at the IEEE's International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco in February, AMD's chip designers went over the Bulldozer core in great detail without actually pre-launching the Opteron 6200 processors that use the cores. The big innovation with the Bulldozers is to have some components shared across two cores, but to give each core its own thread (with no simultaneous multithreading) to have two strong cores.

Each core – which means an integer unit and a floating point unit – in the Bulldozer module has its own integer unit scheduler and L1 data caches, but the cores share fetch and decode units as well as a floating point scheduler and L2 cache memory. Four of these dual-core Bulldozer modules will make up the future "Valencia" Opteron 4200 chips for single- and dual-socket servers using the C32 socket, and two Valencia chips in a single G34 package will constitute an Opteron 6200 processor. Each Bulldozer module has 2MB of L2 cache memory and runs at between 0.8 and 1.3 volts with a design clock speed of 3.5GHz or higher.

AMD has not talked about what clock speeds it can deliver with the Opteron 6200s, but it had better be a lot higher than the current 2.5GHz of the 12-core Opteron 6100s. In July, when going over AMD's financials for the second quarter, Thomas Siefert, the company's CFO and interim CEO, said the 16-core Opteron 6200s would offer about a 35 per cent performance boost compared to the current 12-core Opteron 6100s. Just the core count alone gets you most of the way there. It will be interesting to see what performance/watt advantages the new Opteron 6200 chips have over their predecessors when they are gated off, idling, running a typical application, or going flat-out – and how they stack up with the Xeon E5s and E7s.

In addition to not pre-announcing its own chips, AMD also did not pre-announce what the server makers were up to with the Opteron 6200s. But it did say that it expected server makers to get boxes using the chips out the door in the fourth quarter. Intel is also expected to launch the Xeon E5s for two-socket and four-socket servers in the final quarter of the year. ®

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