AMD, Intel Eye High End with New Server Chips

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2009-05-29

AMD, Intel Eye High End with New Server Chips

Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are both aiming at the high end of the server space with their upcoming processors.

Intel officials on May 26 outlined details of its eight-core "Nehalem EX" Xeon MP processor aimed at servers with four or more sockets. Boyd Davis, general manager of Intel's server platforms marketing group, said during a press conference that the chip-which will start shipping to OEMs later this year and appear in systems in early 2010-will give enterprises an alternative to RISC-based environments.

Now comes AMD with the launch of its six-core "Istanbul" Opteron chip, which officials say will compete not only with Intel's Xeon 5500 Series "Nehalem EP" in the two-socket space, but also with Nehalem EX in the four- and eight-socket arena.

And, they said, it is about ready to go now, a good half-year before Nehalem EX and months before it was initially scheduled to ship. The chip is expected to launch the week of June 1, and most top-tier OEMs are expected to roll out Istanbul-powered systems.

That's a big deal not only to OEMs and end users, but to AMD itself, Pat Patla, vice president and general manager of AMD's server and workstation division, said in an interview.

"Yes, AMD did not execute, and we had some issues bringing it to market," Patla said.

"It" was "Barcelona," the company's first quad-core Opteron that was hampered by technical problems and delays. However, AMD changed the processes used to develop chips-for example, putting one engineer in charge of the entire process, as well as the creation of Centers of Excellence centered around particular areas of engineering expertise-and the result was the next Opteron chip, "Shanghai," came in months ahead of schedule.

Raghuram Tupuri was the lead architect for Shanghai, and Steven Hesley was the lead for Istanbul.

With Istanbul, AMD officials first decided in March 2008 to put it on the product road map to meet demand from OEMs and end users, and within 15 months is ready to ship, Patla said.

Performance Bump


The chip will give users a 30 percent bump in performance/watt, and a 40 to 50 percent improvement in performance, all within the same price and thermal envelope of its predecessor, he said.

"This is going to be a far superior product," Patla said.

It also is going to come with a technology call HT Assist, which John Fruehe, director of business development for server and workstation products at AMD, said in a May 26 blog "can give you much better throughput over the HyperTransport technology connections by reducing the amount of traffic generated by the processors in seeking the shortest path to data that they need."

Such technology will make the chip attractive to high-end server users and those in the HPC (high-performance computing) field, Patla said.

That's an area that both AMD and Intel are eyeing with their new chips, and one that could be a fertile area for them, according to John Spooner, an analyst with Technology Business Research.

"The trend we're seeing is that there is a certain percentage of customers who are looking to scale down from a RISC/Itanium/mainframe-type machines to the high end of the x86 market," Spooner said in an IM interview. "These customers are moving into top-of-the-line four-way and higher x86 servers."

The global recession is playing a role in this decision, but more so is the improved performance and capabilities of x86 servers, particularly around virtualization, Spooner said.

Patla said Istanbul will be able to scale up to the eight-socket space, but added that it is a small part of the overall x86 server market, so much so that with its new chips scheduled for release in 2010, AMD won't pursue the eight-socket space.

But the high-end x86 server market will be another area in which Intel and AMD will compete.

"Customers are still looking to Intel [to help them] move off RISC," Intel's Davis said while discussing Nehalem EX.

Currently, Intel offers the six-core "Dunnington" processor for that space and is still pushing its Itanium chip for the high-end RISC-replacement market. In a response to a question, Davis said he didn't anticipate that Nehalem EX will have a negative impact on Intel's troubled Itanium chip, but did say company officials plan to expand Xeon's reach as far as possible.

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