Advanced Micro Devices shook up the server chip space in 2003 when officials unveiled the first Opterons, x86-based processors that could run both 32- and 64-bit applications and offered an integrated memory controller, among other features.
The new chip came at a time when rival Intel was still looking to Itanium to be the 64-bit chip of the future, and the Opteron launch quickly made AMD a player in the server processor space, forcing Intel to eventually bring 64-bit capabilities to its x86 Xeon processors.
However, as Intel aggressively closed the gap in innovation, AMD between 2007 and 2011 turned its attention away from server chips, in large part giving greater effort and emphasis to the development of its accelerated processing unit (APU) technology, according to Margaret Lewis, director of software planning for AMD's server chip business. AMD has continued to push the price-performance story for its Opteron processors, but it hasn't been able to match Intel's work in the space, and has seen its market share and presence decline over that time.
Now, with a new executive team, AMD is looking to regain its footing in the server chip space, and it is using the VMworld 2012 show as the place to showcase this renewed effort, Lewis told eWEEK. AMD is readying an engineering push that will look to leverage AMD's previous work in low power and high performance, while also emphasizing its heterogeneous computing strategy of running both CPUs and graphics technology on the same piece of silicon-essentially the basis for the APUs now found in client and embedded devices.
AMD also will stress its ambidextrous computing approach, where it will use whatever platform-whether it's x86 or ARM's chip technology-to address customer workloads. "You want to choose the right type of silicon for the right type of job," Lewis said.
At the same time, the vendor will follow a strategy of focusing more on targeted markets-private and public clouds, virtualization and big data-rather than the "broad brush" approach its used in the past, Lewis said. That's where VMworld comes in.
At the show Aug. 27, AMD officials announced the results of tests that show that their server chips offer more performance for the money than Intel processors in virtualized environments. In one VMmark 2.1 benchmark test of high-end systems, Opterons showed better price/performance while reducing capital expenses by up to 30 percent per virtual machine, with savings running up to $130,000 or more for a single rack.
Two other tests showed Opterons beating Intel chips in both price and price/performance in a typical virtualized environment, and better price-performance and scalability in Microsoft Hyper-V environments running 14 to 38 virtual machines. AMD also will showcase its virtualization technologies throughout the VMworld show.
"Virtualization is a sweet spot for AMD Opteron processors," Suresh Gopalakrishnan, corporate vice president and general manager of servers at AMD, said in a statement. "Servers using high core count AMD Opteron 4200 and 6200 series processors today consistently provide our customers with outstanding scalability and lower cost per VM in virtualized IT environments for server consolidation and building public or private clouds."
It's a similar argument that AMD has been making about Opterons since they were first introduced in 2003, and for several years afterward, it worked for the company. However, in 2006, AMD bought GPU-maker ATI Technologies, and spent the next several years working to create its APUs. Opteron development continued, including in core count and energy efficiency, but innovation waned to a degree, Lewis said. The vendor also was plagued by delays in some product launches.
"Maybe we put the server market too much on autopilot, and thought we could keep the market share that we held," she said.
The beating that AMD was taking in the server market was pointed to by analysts as a key part of the rift between AMD's board of directors and former CEO Dirk Meyer, who resigned in January 2011, soon after the first APUs were released. However, ex-Lenovo executive Rory Read was hired later in the year to replace Meyer, and has aggressively reshaped AMD's executive team, including hiring Gopalakrishnan in June.
AMD also has made other moves over the past few months. In February, the company bought SeaMicro for $334 million, giving it a scalable fabric play and a foothold in the growing microserver space, which is becoming increasingly popular with businesses running hyperscale data centers and cloud environments. In May, AMD officials announced the company will integrate ARM's Cortex-A5 processor with TrustZone security technology into future APUs, a move that illustrates AMD's willingness to bring third-party technologies into its chip designs, as per its ambidextrous computing efforts.
Lewis declined to say whether AMD would expand its partnership with ARM, but noted that the company would continue to extend its heterogeneous architecture efforts, leveraging non-AMD technology when appropriate.
She also said AMD's continued work with software developers to create applications that can take advantage of these architectures will be important.
"The hardware is nothing without the software, and the software is nothing without hardware," Lewis said. "Really, it's about how to get the two working together."