AMD Aims to Reinvigorate x86 Server Business

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2015-05-09 Print this article Print
data center

However, much of the focus now is on the upcoming x86 Opterons that will be based on Zen. The new core design will come with an array of new features, from its support for DDR4 memory to its embrace of simultaneous multi-threading (SMT) rather than AMD's Cluster-based Multi-Threading. It also will feature a FinFET transistor design for the 14-nanometer chips and will include a new high-bandwidth, low-latency cache system. The design promises as much as a 40 percent performance improvement over current chips.

New Opterons featuring the design are expected to begin appearing in 2016, according to the company.

Moorhead, of Moor Insights and Strategy, said such performance gains will be impressive if the technology comes through.

"That's a really good sign," he said, adding a cautionary note. "It doesn't mean market success. It positions them for possible market success."

It also helps the company move up the competitive ladder. Where current Opterons based on such architectures as "Bulldozer" were positioned to compete with Intel's low-end Xeon E3 chips, Zen will enable AMD to compete in the midrange against Xeon E5 chips, he said.

While putting more effort into the x86 space, AMD isn't abandoning ARM. The company is looking to launch its K12 server SoC—created through an ARM architecture license—in 2017.

Su said AMD will have to be careful how it competes with Intel, which is much larger and has more resources in such areas as money, manufacturing and people. That challenge was on display during the week—the day before AMD's analyst meeting, Intel launched its powerful Xeon E7 v3 high-end server processors. Norrod said there will be opportunities to focus on doing "things that Intel doesn't want to do, or things Intel isn't doing," harkening back to the days when AMD was the first to bring 64-bit computing to x86 chips, or integrating the memory controller onto the chip.

Moorhead said the industry's desire for a second supplier of x86 chips not only helps with pricing and innovation, but protects customers against any sourcing problems. Intel also would probably welcome a stronger AMD, both Moorhead and Norrod said. The ARM architecture is still out there as a possible alternative, and IBM is making strides at the high end with its Power8 chips, Moorhead said. A strong AMD would mean that more workloads would stay in the x86 camp, and workloads lost to AMD could find their way back to Intel, Norrod said. If a business moves off x86 and onto ARM or Power, they probably wouldn't return to x86, he told analysts and journalists after the meeting.

That brings into question what will be the alternative to x86, Moorhead said. The industry wants to have two architectures to choose from.

"We know one of them is x86," he said. "Then it becomes, will it be ARM or will it be Power?"

ARM's server future remains unclear. The company now offers a 64-bit architecture, and a number of chip makers—not only AMD, but Qualcomm and Applied Micro—are developing products. However, at this point, Applied Micro and Cavium are the only ones to have chips on the market. There has been some interest—PayPal is using servers based on Applied Micro's X-Gene chips, while the University of Utah's CloudLab project is running on Moonshot servers from Hewlett-Packard powered by the Applied Micro SoCs—but long-range success is uncertain.

IBM continues to build out its Power portfolio, while also expanding the reach of the architecture through its OpenPower efforts.

AMD's Norrod, dating back to his Dell days, has taken a cautious approach to ARM servers, questioning whether the demand is there beyond the massive Web-scale businesses and other niche markets. Still, he said following the AMD meeting that ARM's architecture also is playing a role in other areas of the data center, including storage and networking.



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