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Intel brings bigger guns to AMD server chip war

Xeon and Opteron 2012 battle plan

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Analysis If you want to get into the server processor racket, here's some advice: Don't bring a knife to a gun fight. And when you whip out your guns, you better have a piece stashed in each of your boots, maybe another high-caliber rifle on your back, and a few knives while you are at it for price-cutting when the bullets run out.

With Intel getting ready to launch its "Sandy Bridge" Xeon E5 processors in March and revving up its 22 nanometer processes to eventually field "Ivy bridge" kickers, Advanced Micro Devices is going to have to engineer some pretty impressive new Opteron server chips. It'll have to cook up those chips pretty sharpish, in conjunction with its wafer-baking partners, if it hopes to gain ground in the ongoing x86 server chip war – much less hold the hard-fought ground it has attained in high performance computing and server virtualization.

Everybody loves an underdog and most people like to see a bully take one on the chin and go down to his knees. So a lot of companies were rooting for AMD as it was designing the Opteron processors and trying to build an ecosystem of server vendors who would peddle machines based on them in the early and middle 2000s.

Back in the early 2000s, Intel was trying to protect its high-end 64-bit Itanium server business and push its Xeon processors down into the 32-bit volume server space, and AMD brilliantly shot the gap between the Xeon and Itanium to create the 64-bit Opterons, eventually pushing its server market share as high as 25 per cent.

But it has been a long time since x86 server chip juggernaut Intel was hammered – SledgeHammered, to be specific – by longtime rival AMD with its 64-bit, low-power, multicore Opteron processors. Intel shifted to the Core microarchitecture, added 64-bit memory addressing and processing, and a slew of key features such as the QuickPath Interconnect to its Xeon processors and hit back hard against the Opteron upstart. The "Nehalem" Xeon architecture announced in 2009 had everything that Opterons had, and when the Great Recession hit just in the wake of yet another Opteron delay, server makers put most of their effort into build Xeon war machines, not Opteron battlewagons, and AMD has been losing ground ever since.

Because server chip profits help pay the bills at Intel, AMD, IBM, Oracle, and Fujitsu, the loss of market share by AMD is one of the key reasons why CEO Dirk Meyer resigned in January 2011. In hindsight, we can also see that Meyer and the bulk of the management team that handles chip development and manufacturing have been replaced since new CEO Rory Read came aboard last July. AMD has a new CTO – Mark Papermaster, formerly of IBM, Apple, and Cisco Systems – and has replaced its former marketing, products, and operations bosses, and has tapped ex-Intel engineer Rajan Naik as senior vice president and chief strategy officer.

So, AMD is no doubt drawing up new war plans for the x86 server battlefield, but the company has not said much to date about its plans. Perhaps it will enlighten us during its Analyst Day this week. But we can conjecture about what AMD might do by looking at what Intel is about to do in the x86 racket.

A Sandy Bridge not too far

While Intel never publicly promised that the "Sandy Bridge-EP" Xeon E5 processors would launch last fall for shipments in the fourth quarter, the circumstantial evidence – and comments from motherboard and server makers like Super Micro – indicate that this was indeed the plan. But with AMD having its own issues shipping its "Interlagos" Opteron 6200 processors for two-socket and four-socket servers and its "Valencia" Opteron 4200s for single-socket and dual-socket machines, Intel did not have to rush to market. (The speculation is that a SAS controller bug similar to the one in the C200 chipset that delayed the launch of "Sandy Bridge-DT" E3 processors and various PC chips of similar design has been found in the "Patsburg" C600 chipset for the Xeon E5s. Intel has not confirmed this.) Frankly, with Intel turning in the best fourth quarter and fiscal year in its history, in terms of profits and revenues, as 2011 came to a close, despite a PC slowdown and whatever issues stalled the Xeon E5s, it is hard to argue that Intel made the wrong call.

Chip happens

Intel is just starting to talk to press and analysts under embargo this week about the forthcoming Xeon E5s, and it is no coincidence that it is doing so just ahead of AMD's Analyst Day. (El Reg is reporting this to you from coach on a Delta flight to Portland, Oregon, ahead of a briefing by Intel from its Beaverton chip and server development labs.)

As El Reg exclusively disclosed last May, the plan with the Xeon E5s is to take what would have normally been a chip for general-purpose two-socket workhorses and bifurcate the line into multiple processor and chipset variants to address very precise market segments. This is, of course, what AMD did two years ago when it created two different two-socket server families: the Opteron 4100s – which could also scale down to single socket machines aimed at small, power-sensitive workloads – and the Opteron 6100s, which could scale up to four processor sockets.

Anything AMD can do, Intel can do. (The market decides if Intel can do it better, or at least well enough to allow IT managers to fall back on the "nobody ever got fired for buying Intel" insurance policy.)

Intel is actually cutting its server market into eight pieces with the Xeon E5 launch. That's Itanium 9300s and Xeon 7500s and E7s at the high-end (and eventually the "Sandy Bridge-EX" E8s). That's two segments of the market that share chipsets and memory cards, but that have different motherboards and sockets. At least until Intel finally delivers, as it is rumored to be in the works, the long-promised common Xeon-Itanium socket. That could happen with the E8s, but it is far more likely to happen with the "Ivy Bridge-EX" Xeon E9s years hence. At the low-end, there's the single-socket Xeon E3 and Atom processors, depending on how wimpy or brawny your workload is. That's four addressable server segments in total.

The Xeon E5s will also span four different server types and will cover the middle and overlap with the high and low ends. The Xeon E5-2600, as the first of the "Romley" server platforms are expected to be called, will use the "EP" variant of the Xeon E5 chip that plugs into the new "Socket R" CPU socket. This socket is not compatible with the current Xeon 5500 and 5600 processors, but has all sorts of goodies, including two QPI links between the processors, support for unregistered, registered, and load-reduced (LR) DDR3 main memory, and integrated PCI-Express 3.0 controllers on the processor. This is the chip that Intel has presumably been shipping under NDA to selected supercomputer and hyperscale data center customers since last fall. This chip is clearly aimed at two-socket Opteron 6200 machines.

For two-socket machines that don't need all of these capabilities, Intel is expected to roll out its "Sandy Bridge-EN" chips, rumored to be called the Xeon E5-2400s. These chips will plug into the new "Socket B2" socket and will sport only one QPI link between processors as well as fewer memory channels, fewer DIMMs per core, and fewer PCI-Express 3.0 slots. This chip is fired directly at two-socket Opteron 4200 iron.

If the rumors are right, then Intel will also ship a variant of the Sandy Bridge-EP chip that will be able to span four processor sockets in a single system image. This chip is expected to be called the Xeon E5-4600 and is obviously targeting the four-socket Opteron 6200.

And finally, Intel will field a Xeon E5-1600 chip, aimed at single-socket servers and workstations and based on the Sandy Bridge-EN chip that will zero in on single-socket Opteron 4200 servers and whatever plans AMD has to revive its single-socket server biz with the Opteron 3000 series, which it said it was working on back in November. The first Opteron 3000 chip, code-named "Zurich" and presumably to be named the Opteron 3200 to be consistent with the 2012 series of Opteron processors, is basically a cut-down Opteron 4200 with six or eight cores that will plug into an AM3+ socket instead of a C32 socket.

In any event, Intel appears to be looking to chase the microserver segment with the Xeon E5-1600 as AMD is looking to pursue with the Opteron 4200 and 3200 chips. The word on the street is that the Xeon E5-1600 will plug into the Socket R socket, but it would make more sense for it to use the lower-cost Socket B2 socket.

Should all of this come to pass in 2012, it is safe to say that Intel has a weapon to match everything that AMD can throw at it – and then some. AMD only has one flavor of four socket machine, and Intel has three if you count Itanium. AMD has only two kinds of single-socket boxes it can bring into the field, Intel has three if you count Atom. AMD has two two-socket boxes, but Intel has four if you count Itanium.

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