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Intel brings bigger guns to AMD server chip war

Xeon and Opteron 2012 battle plan

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It's Hammer time, again

It must have been such fun to run AMD when Intel's server and PC chips were misaligned with the market needs. It must be daunting to come into work every day at AMD and see the lead in process technology, cash, clout, and chip and market coverage that Intel currently has not just over AMD, but over anyone who is making processors for anything larger than a smartphone or tablet.

AMD has been clever in a lot of ways to survive the Intel onslaught despite being behind in process technology. With the Opteron 4100s and 6100s, the company had to do its own full platforms – chipsets and processors – for the first time, which is a lot of change to manage all at once. Moreover, with the Opteron 6200s, AMD took its eight-way server architecture, beefed it up with more and faster HyperTransport links across the CPU sockets, and then double-stuffed six-core processors into a single socket and convinced the software vendors of the world that this was indeed a four-socket, rather than an eight-socket, machine. For systems and application software that is socket-based, this little maneuver cuts software feeds in half.

AMD has also been winning the core count skirmish against Intel and positioning its two-core "Bulldozer" module used in the Opteron 4200s and 6200s as two strong physical threads against Intel's weaker HyperThreaded cores. However, with a shared scheduler, on workloads that make heavy use of 256-bit floating point instructions, half of the 16 cores in an Opteron 6200 will often sit idle and the net effect is that the performance should be about the same as the forthcoming Xeon E5 with eight cores running 256-bit floating point. AMD has two stronger cores, but only if you want to do 128-bit math or integer work.

So what is AMD to do?

Go back to the drawing board and exploit whatever weaknesses it can find in Intel's armor, just as always. Or, start a fight on a new battlefield where Intel is not going to be so strong.

Back in November 2010, two months before the management shakeup at AMD, the company said that its plan for this year was to bring out replacements for the C32 socket used for Opteron 4100 and 4200 processors and the G34 socket used with Opteron 6100 and 6200 processors.

The plan calls for the high-end Opterons, code-named "Terramar" and presumably called the Opteron 6300, to have 20 Bulldozer cores based on a next-generation core, code-named "Piledriver". The low-end will get the "Sepang" Opteron 4300, a ten-core chip that is essentially what gets double-stuffed into a socket to make the Terramar chip package. Rumor has it that AMD will boost memory capacity with these forthcoming Opterons as well as support PCI-Express 3.0 peripherals. The Terrarmar and Sepang chips will be etched in the 32 nanometer processes used by GlobalFoundries, AMD's spun out former chip manufacturing operations.

Presumably there is a process shrink to 28 nanometers to boost clock speed and therefore single-threaded application performance of these Opteron 4300 and 6300 chips in the works, but AMD has not said yet and will no doubt lay out its plans at Analyst Day this week.

As was the case during the Great Recession, now would be a particularly bad time for AMD to force a socket transition onto its smaller band of server customers, and the new management at AMD must be looking pretty hard at that roadmap, wondering if they can change as little as possible now to buy time to do a lot more radical engineering for the future.

If I were running AMD, I would be looking very hard at that "Bobcat" core that is the alternative to Intel's Atom and start thinking about servers, and also go back and look at the "Trinity" low-power Fusion chip, which is based on the Bulldozer cores.

When AMD was kicking Intel in the chips in the mid-2000s, Chipzilla relatively quickly (okay, it took years) shifted over to the Core laptop chip architecture for its PCs and servers and not only saved its chip business, but blunted the AMD attack. Intel has copied most of the ideas that made the Opteron better or different and is now using its wafer-baking process technology and its ability to set market prices to force AMD to compete mostly on lower price for roughly equivalent performance and features.

This is not an enviable position to be in for AMD, obviously. But there's always the ARM option, and AMD could do something radical like buy Applied Micro or Calxeda and turn the x86 chip war into a two-front war for Intel to have to fight. ®

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