Advanced Micro Devices fired the latest salvo in its chip-count competition with rival Intel, releasing its eight- to 12-core Opteron 6000 "Magny-Cours" processors March 29.
The launch comes a day before Intel is expected to roll out its eight-core high-end "Nehalem EX" Xeon chip.
A host of server vendors, including Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Cray, SGI and Appro, are unveiling new or enhanced systems based on the Opteron 6000 processors, which AMD officials say brings greater performance, memory capacity and energy efficiency over previous versions.
Also planning to roll out new Magny-Cours-based systems is Acer, the world's second largest PC maker, as it looks to make another run at the server market.
Gina Longoria, director of product management of AMD's Server and Workstation Division, said the chip maker is looking to offer the best price/performance per watt.
"We're offering more cores and more memory for less money," Longoria said in an interview.
Both AMD and Intel are positioning themselves for the expected refresh of corporate servers, as businesses look to replace older systems that they have been holding on to because of the drastic cutbacks in IT spending due to the global recession.
Executives at Dell and HP, during separate quarterly conference calls in February, said they expect to see server sales begin to grow again this year.
"We do see a pretty robust refresh cycle throughout the year," HP President and CEO Mark Hurd said during a conference call with reporters and analysts Feb. 17.
Analyst firms Gartner and IDC both are predicting that enterprises will begin spending on servers again in 2010, driven not only by the need to upgrade the systems but also the innovation that both Intel and AMD are putting into their processors.
Intel rolled out its "Nehalem EP" Xeon chips for two-socket systems last year, while AMD launched its six-core "Istanbul" Opterons.
Intel March 16 released its six-core Xeon 5600 series "Westmere EP" processors for two-socket systems. By the end of the month, enterprises will have two new high-end x86 chip families to choose from.
IDC analyst Dan Harrington said in an interview in February that the new releases from both chip makers will continue to drive the strong growth of x86 systems, which to some extent is coming at the expense of higher-end Unix-based servers.
"As both AMD and Intel release new higher-end chips this year, including Magny-Cours and Nehalem EX, we expect there to be continued interest in x86, especially as a potential substitute for some more expensive low- to mid-range non-x86 solutions," Harrington said.
Intel officials have said they see their Nehalem EX processors pushing their way into the higher-end market. However, AMD's Longoria said that AMD officials have a different vision for their Opteron 6000 processors.
There will be some spillover into the Unix space, she said, but the key to the new Magny-Cours chips will be the opportunity they offer enterprises that currently are running two-socket servers to upgrade their systems or to move into the four-socket space without incurring huge expenses.
With the new Opteron 6000 chips and the upcoming four- to six-core "Lisbon" Opterons-due out in the second quarter-aimed at the one- and two-socket server space, AMD is giving the industry two options for their two-socket systems, she said. That is a key differentiator over Intel, which offers a single platform for two-socket servers.
"The 2P [two processor] is a very difficult market to serve with one platform," Longoria said, adding that AMD is offering strong price-performance-power-watt capabilities for higher-end two-socket systems, and low-power, low-cost options for lower-end 2P servers. "Having all that in one platform is difficult."
The two-socket space continues to be "the sweet spot" for x86 servers, Longoria said, accounting for 75 percent of the market. Single-socket servers make up about 20 percent, with four- and eight-socket systems accounting for about 5 percent, she said.
AMD's Magny-Cours chips offer twice the performance of the company's Istanbul chips, support for four channels of DDR3 memory for up to 2.5 times the overall memory bandwidth and 33 percent more memory channels than Intel's two-socket offerings, she said.
AMD's chips also have up to 12 DIMMs per processor, which is important for memory-intensive workloads in such areas as virtualization, database and HPC (high-performance computing).
Longoria said AMD also is removing the "4P tax," offering a processor that can run in both four- and two-socket servers and that is priced aggressively. The highest-cost Opteron 6000 comes in at $1,386 per 1,000 units sold, compared with $2,649 for AMD's Opteron 8000 chips and $3,600 for Intel's four-socket chips.
"Economically, [four-socket servers are] something that makes sense to people now," she said. "This is why 4P is going to make sense for more people."