AMD Puts Spotlight on Upcoming Zen Processors

By Jeff Burt  |  Posted 2016-08-18 Print this article Print
AMD, Zen processor

However, Brookwood and other analysts said that server OEMs and businesses are looking for an alternative to Intel to help drive innovation and keep costs down, and AMD, with its Zen microarchitecture, could be that option. Other chip makers—including ARM and partners Qualcomm, Applied Micro and Cavium, not to mention IBM and its OpenPower effort—-also are vying to be that Intel alternative.

Where AMD Has a Leg Up Over Rivals

However, Brookwood noted that AMD offers advantages that ARM and IBM can't match. In particular, AMD's technology is based on the same x86 architecture as Intel, which would make it much easier for enterprises to shift their workloads to AMD from Intel. Turning to ARM or IBM would require embracing another architecture and all the work it would take to port their software, he said.

Su also noted that unlike ARM and its various partners, AMD has a long history of developing silicon for the server market.

"x86 is the dominant architecture when talking about the data center and when talking about PCs," she said. "Experience is important. The number of players who can do high-performance CPUs is few."

She said during the event that "Zen is absolutely critical to our re-entrance into the data center. There needs to be competition in the data center."

Papermaster said that in building Zen, AMD engineers looked at everything to help drive performance and power efficiency increases. Among the key features leading to the gains are simultaneous multithreading—a technology similar to Intel's Hyper-Threading—for improved performance, a new cache hierarchy, improved branch prediction and the use of FinFET technology for better performance and efficiency.

"Performance, throughput and efficiency," he said, noting that AMD officials will talk more about the Zen microarchitecture at the Hot Chips 2016 show, scheduled for Aug. 21-23 in Cupertino, California. "That's what the team put together. Those were the levers" pulled to get the performance gains.

It was important for AMD to make the effort to develop Zen as it looked to make its way back into servers and to regain its footing in PCs, especially given the dominance of Intel in both markets, Su and Papermaster said.

"We have to be faster, more flexible [and] creative because we're the smaller player," Papermaster said. 

In response to a question during the event regarding Intel, Su said that "we will always be paranoid about our competitor, but we are playing our game."

She told eWEEK that the disruptions in the market caused by the cloud and other trends are creating opportunities for AMD to grab share from Intel.

"The market is changing," Su said. "It is different from the way it was five years ago, even 10 years ago."

Even as AMD is gearing up to finally get Zen into the market, Su and Papermaster cautioned against expectations of rapid results. The CEO told eWEEK that while adoption can happen relatively quickly in the desktop PC space, the ramp up of servers in the enterprise space tends to take longer. OEMs need to qualify the chip for their systems, and then end users need to go through a test and evaluation phase before deciding to adopt the technology. Zen—particularly in the enterprise—is a long-term strategy, she said. 

The company already is looking down the road, Papermaster said, with engineers already working on the follow-on to Zen, called Zen+.

What was noticeably absent from the presentation was any talk about AMD's plans for ARM-based server chips. The company had been looking at ARM-based SoCs as complements to its x86 offerings—and released its first Opteron-A chip earlier this year—but earlier this month reports surfaced that the company had put the ARM idea on the back burner to focus more of its efforts and resources on Zen and the x86 market.


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