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AMD shoots lower with Opteron 3000 server chips

Bringing single-socket boxes in from the embedded cold?

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SC11 Chip maker Advanced Micro Devices said during a restructuring announced two weeks ago that it was going to take low-power servers seriously again. And as part of the Opteron 6200 and 4200 processor launches this morning at an event in Beijing, and at the SC11 supercomputing conference in Seattle, Washington, AMD has tweaked its Opteron roadmap and brought back the low-end, single-socket server processor.

"Just a year or two ago, the 1P server market was stagnant, filled with single processor tower servers, mainly destined for small businesses," explains John Fruehe, director of product marketing for server and embedded products at AMD, in a blog post. "These are the very servers that cloud computing will eventually replace in many of these small businesses."

And Fruehe says that many cloud customers are looking for the most density they can cram into their data centers to support users – and that, in some cases, means using so-called microservers.

The Intel definition of a microserver is a single-socket machine with maybe four memory slots and a disk or flash drive, aimed predominantly at the re-physicalization of server workloads and perhaps attaining as much as 10 per cent of server shipments some years into the future.

To chase the microserver market, AMD has gussied up its Opteron server roadmap and added a little something called the Opteron 3000 series, and the first chip to come out in the series is code-named "Zurich".

Fruehe writes that the Zurich processor will be based on the eight-core "Valencia" Opteron 4200 die that was announced Monday along with the 16-core "Interlagos" Opteron 6200. The Zurich chip will have four, six, or eight cores activated, and will plunk into the AM3+ socket. It will also have ECC scrubbing on its DDR3 memory, just like its bigger siblings, and will also sport longer life cycles in the AMD product line, longer duty cycles in the field, and broad server application and operating system validation and support.

I know what you are thinking: "How is this different fron the embedded products that AMD has been selling since it stopped selling the Opteron 1000 series to anyone who wanted it?"

The answer is" "I am not sure" – AMD is not answering any questions yet.

My suspicion, though, is that the difference won't be much, except that maybe – just maybe – the parts will be widely available, and not just special-issue chips that you need to have a formal relationship with AMD to get your hands on.

The point that Fruehe is making is that the Zurich chips are aimed at hosting providers that want to provide low-cost dedicated servers to their customers, and that are tired of trying to do this with desktop-class motherboards and systems that may or may not have formal server OS support.

The goal is to provide an Opteron 3200 series server for a lot less money than is possible with a single-socket Opteron 4200 or a competing Intel Xeon 3500 or Xeon E3 chip of roughly equivalent performance. Intel's Atom chips, while useful for a number of parallel workloads, are not necessarily suited to all microserver workloads, particularly those that need larger caches and higher clock speeds.

"We expect that the 1P market is going to start to heat up over the next few years, so establishing a foothold with the AMD Opteron 3000 series platform will be important to our long-term business, especially as more customers move to the cloud," says Fruehe.

The Opteron 3200 will launch in the first half of 2012, and AMD is expected to release more details in the new year.

It will be interesting to see if AMD gets a little more broad at the low end of the server racket and tweaks its "Bobcat" processor, designed for notebooks and netbooks, to create an ultra-low-power server processor that can take on Intel's Atom in microservers.

When Fruehe talked to El Reg about the "Bobcat" design in August 2010, he insisted that AMD had no plans to put Bobcat chips into servers. However, the Bobcat core – a heavily modified K8 core, not a dual-core "Bulldozer" module like the new Opteron 4200 and 6200 chips and the future 3200 chips – is the most energy-efficient chip AMD has at the moment.

The Bobcat chip supports out-of-order execution, 64-bit instructions, AMD-V hardware-assisted virtualization, and other features. But it doesn't have ECC on the DDR3 memory – which is why AMD is gearing down the Valencia chip rather than goosing the "Ontario" Fusion C-Series notebook chip. ®

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