Opteron Flies, but AMD Hits Speed Bumps

By John Taschek  |  Posted 2003-04-21

Opteron Flies, but AMD Hits Speed Bumps

With Opteron, the best we can hope for is that the marvelous 64-bit processor wont be buried by AMDs marketing bungles. Unfortunately, it looks like AMD is still bungling, much to the chagrin of the IT community.

AMDs rationale for 64-bit computing is in line with most industry thinking. Sixty-four-bit systems are necessary because the volume of data that systems must address is doubling each year while memory prices are decreasing by half each year.

To succeed with Opteron, AMD had to execute three tasks. The first was to cure the Intel-inspired megahertz madness and still produce faster processors than Intel. Just a few years ago, much of the desktop-processor-buying public upgraded systems on a megahertz basis. If 500MHz was too slow, consumers thought getting a 1GHz system would double performance.

As youd expect, AMD says the 64-bit Opteron will be faster than the 64-bit Itanium.Perhaps more surprising is that AMD also claims that the 64-bit Opteron is faster at 32-bit operations than Itanium and the fastest Xeons, including those that use the 533MHz front-side bus (the bus that connects the processor to the memory controller and along which all memory operations need to travel) and perhaps even the 667MHz bus design expected next year.

In servers, its not about the megahertz, as Intel realized a couple of years ago, when it released the PIII Xeon, basically a Pentium II core with a few megabytes of cache integrated on the processor die. This played into the hands of AMD. Both Intel and AMD turned to architecture advancements as their main differentiators. Intel came up with Hyper-Threading Technology—a brand name for Intels ability to execute multiple application threads in parallel. At that point, Intel shifted the megahertz battle from the processor to the processor bus.

AMDs answer to hyperthreading technology is called HyperTransport—AMDs implementation of an open specification governed by the HyperTransport Consortium. Instead of jumping on the bus battle with Intel, AMD claims HyperTransport obviates the front-side bus and gets rid of latencies in SMP systems. AMD is basically telling Intel that its not getting into the bus race because buses are a poor form of transportation in the age of flight. Result: AMD succeeds.

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The second task was that AMD had to persuade operating system vendors to produce Opteron-optimized versions. Its obvious that a processor without an operating system is less useful than a doorstop. Thats about where the Opteron was just over a year ago, when AMD had no operating system vendor backing it up.

AMD did a haphazard job aligning the operating system vendors with its cause. In fact, Intel, with its size advantage, did a much better job getting Itanium commitment, even though the Itaniums EPIC (explicitly parallel instruction computing) architecture was far more costly and difficult to optimize for.

It wasnt until Comdex Fall 2002, however, that AMD showed a prototype of 64-bit Windows running on Opteron. And even with this, it still wasnt clear until recently that Microsoft was committed to Opteron. Microsoft is on board, although it looks now like its a reaction to the Linux distributors 64-bit Opteron-optimized distributions. Result: AMD barely makes it.

The third task was to persuade server vendors such as Dell and HP to carry Opteron. So far, there have been rumors that Dell might have an Opteron SKU, but theres no official word. The Compaq side of HP would likely be a candidate, since it is usually an aggressive server vendor. However, HPs commitment to Itanium puts major kinks in any mass movement.

That leaves AMDs partnership with Newisys, a company that makes 64-bit AMD systems, to strike some deals. The way it looks from here, though, is that only second-tier server vendors are latching on to Opteron. Result: AMD bungles it—so far.

Had Intel created Opteron, it would have performed these three tasks in parallel and succeeded. AMD, although technically nimble, executed these operations in serial, leaving Opteron up in the air.

AMD had a golden opportunity to succeed here, but its poor execution over the last year has hampered its chances for success. The result: AMD is going to get at most 10 percent of the market, just slightly better than it always has, even though the Opteron design has many worthwhile advancements.

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