AMD Enters Pivotal 2016 With Product Road Map That Must Lead to Growth
The architecture will include simultaneous multi-threading (SMT)—a technology similar to Intel's Hyper-Threading—for improved performance, support for DDR4 memory and a 3D FinFET transistor design for 14-nanometer and 16nm chips. AMD's current processors are 28nm. Zen will offer a 40 percent performance improvement over current chips. The Zen architecture will first appear in desktop PCs, and then will find its way into servers, according to CEO Su. While AMD will release the first Zen chips later next year, the company won't see its first full year of revenue from the architecture until 2017. Company officials expect the Zen architecture to be a cornerstone in a broad range of products. In August, AMD revealed that it was developing a high-end chip aimed at supercomputers that will include as many as 32 Zen cores and an unknown number of its upcoming "Greenland" GPUs.AMD made a significant jump in the data center more than a decade ago when it released its first Opteron chip, which enables 64-bit x86 processing, at a time when Intel was pushing its Itanium architecture for 64-bit systems. AMD saw its market share go up to about 30 percent, but it eroded over time due to Intel's innovation around its x86 Xeon processor, missteps by AMD and changes in the marketplace. With Zen, AMD is serving notice that it plans to become a player again in the server market, and that the data center is "not an all-[Intel] Xeon play," Su said. "It's a huge market that has a lot of opportunity," she said. "It's also a market you have to be ready to invest in for the next five years. Zen is the key to our data center play." Moor Insights' Moorhead said Zen represents a shift in AMD's thinking back to focusing on CPU integer-performance-per-core—similar to Intel's efforts—after several years of targeting acceleration performance. With previous architectures, including its previous disappointing "Bulldozer" core, AMD made a significant bet on parallelism that didn't work out. With Zen, AMD "is getting back to the basics … of the CPU," Moorhead said. "That is what makes Zen so incredibly important." Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64, said Zen will be important to AMD's plans going forward, but that it will be important for the company to execute on its plans. "Whenever Zen shows up, if it's not a home run, it will at least be a triple," Brookwood told eWEEK. "But if it's too little, too late, they have no backup plans." A driving force behind the development of Zen, Chief Architect Jim Keller, left the company in September, but analysts said they don't expect the program to be hurt by the departure. "The sense that I got was that a lot of the hard work had been done by then," TECHnalysis' O'Donnell said. To make room for the x86 server push with Zen, AMD officials pulled back on some of the company's plans for its ARM-based chips. The Opteron A110 "Seattle" is shipping in what Su has called "modest volumes," but the K12 chip, based on a custom ARM core, will launch in 2017 rather than next year. There is an opportunity in the data center for AMD, Moorhead said. Intel holds more than 95 percent of the market, and OEMs are looking for a second source of silicon to drive innovation, lower prices and protect them against supply chain issues. Zen could be the technology that enables the company to be that second source, the analyst said. "Server vendors are reeling from the lack of competition," Moorhead said, adding that AMD's products don't need to match the capabilities of those from Intel, but need to get close. Su said it's less about having a choice of vendors and more about a choice of products. AMD is bringing a competitive road map that includes CPUs, GPUs and accelerators that give OEMs and end users a wider range of options for products that can be optimized for workloads.
The company has taped out several Zen products. Officials also have said that engineers already are working on the next generation of Zen, dubbed "Zen+."