AMD Sets the Stage with New Opteron

AMD will look to drive its server business with its newest Opteron chip, which promises greater performance and built-in hooks for virtualization.

Advanced Micro Devices is counting on an updated version of its Opteron chip, unveiled Aug. 15, to set the pace for its server business in the coming months.

The chip maker has gained momentum in x86 servers recently. Data from Mercury Research, in Cave Creek, Ariz., shows that the Opteron made up almost 26 percent of x86 server processor unit shipments in the second quarter.

Now, as expected, AMD intends to up the ante with a revised Opteron, dubbed Rev F internally, which promises greater performance thanks to improvements such as support for faster DDR2 (double-data-rate 2) memory as well as built-in hooks for virtualization technology.

The chip, which will be compared with Intels new Xeon 5100 server processor, will also set the stage for a series of improvements that AMD says will offer a major increase in Opteron-based server performance over time. The developments include the deployment of server co-processors under the AMD Torrenza program and the arrival of quad-core Opteron processors.

Torrenza will allow server manufacturers to add connectors for one of several types of add-in boards containing co-processors. The co-processors can be used to increase a given servers performance for specific tasks. Rev F Opterons will also include a new socket, which will pave the way for the transition from chips with two processor cores each. The quad-core Opterons are being designed to use the same socket, which receives the tiny pins on the back of a chips packaging that affix it a computer motherboard.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about Opteron Rev F features.

"The criteria by which people are deciding what they are going to purchase is being driven more and more by the [server processor] architecture, the throughput and the tailorability to their environment," said Doug OFlaherty, division manager for acceleration solutions at AMDs Advanced Technology Group, in Boxborough, Mass. "Weve reach the end of the old curve, which was adding more [processor] speed."

Thats why AMD and Intel have turned to adding features such as virtualization—technology that allows a server to be partitioned to run different operating systems and application sets simultaneously—to their chips, in addition to moving toward dual and then multiple processor cores. The companies are also making platform-level improvements, further additions that sit outside the processor, as they search for an edge.

"Were seeing a period where what customers want is evolving very quickly," OFlaherty said. However, "The thing we feel very strongly they keep coming back to is they want a good architecture. They want scalability and the throughput on their applications."

AMD said it believes its quad-core design and Torrenza platform will help set it apart in that manner. The Sunnyvale, Calif., chip maker also announced on Aug. 15 that it had completed the design of its quad-core Opteron. It aims to demonstrate the chip for the first time later this year and roll it out in mid-2007.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about AMDs quad-core chips.

But Intel, and even some of AMDs server customers, have plans of their own. A range of companies, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems, all plan to use Ref F chips. Even Dell, Dell, a longtime Intel-only systems maker, said it would start shipping an Opteron-based multiprocessor server by the end of 2006.

But Intels newly introduced Xeon 5100, which the company says offers greater performance and uses less power than its predecessors, also has been adopted by many of the same manufacturers that will sell Rev F Opteron servers. The Xeon 5100 also comes with virtualization hooks built in. Intel also plans to usher in its first quad-core processors late in 2006—several months ahead of AMDs—and roll out a new high-end Xeon chip for multiprocessor servers, dubbed "Tulsa."

AMD has downplayed the significance of Intels quad-core "Clovertown" chip. The processor packages a pair of dual-core Xeon 5100 chips together to create a quad-core processor. AMDs approach has been to design its quad-core Opteron by placing all four cores into the same chip. Intel, for its part, maintains that it will offer both types of chips. The multichip, dual-core approach allows Intel to bring out a quad-core earlier, Intel executives say.

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead more here about how Intel got its quad-core chip out before AMDs offering.

Rev F servers will be the first to be capable of incorporating an HTX port, making it possible for them to be fitted with add-in cards containing co-processors for a variety of tasks, ranging from heavy-duty processing of XML files to creating speedier network interconnects between computers that serve as nodes in high-performance computing clusters, OFlaherty said.

But while theyre building the Rev F Opteron into numerous machines, at least two of AMDs brand-name server partners, HP and Sun, are not planning to offer servers with HTX ports immediately, representatives at the two companies said.

Sun will begin by offering two new servers, and will add Rev F Opterons to its entire line of AMD-based Sun Fire servers over time, it said. The two machines, which Sun says offer aggressive starting prices, high performance with features such as 4-Gigabit Ethernet, Embedded Lights Out Manager and N1 management technology, will come out in August.

Sun will offer a new single-socket Sun Fire X2100 M2 server for a starting price of about $945. Its Sun Fire X2200 M2, a dual-socket machine geared toward high-performance computing clusters and Web services, will be $1,595.

Sun estimates that its new machines will use up to 15 percent less power than Xeon 5100-based servers and it will unveil benchmarks that show performance advantages of up to 36 percent over Xeon machines, said Rebecca Tong, product line manager for x64 systems, at Sun Microsystems, in San Jose, Calif.

However, Sun chose not to add an HTX slot because, at the moment, there are few cards to fill those slots, whereas there are numerous PCI-based add-in cards, company executives said.

"Sun is focused on open standards and PCI Express is an open standard for I/O [input/output], so thats what Sun has implemented" in servers like the Sun Fire X2200 M2, said Pradeep Parmar, product line business manager for systems at Sun. "What customers are telling us is they like industry standards. HTX is not as widely used as PCIx—or PCI Express. Were just not seeing much demand for it."

Hewlett-Packard, too, will offer Rev F Opterons in half a dozen of its ProLiant servers. But despite continuing to evaluate the technology, HP has no immediate plans to add HTX ports to the machines, a company spokesperson said.

The Palo Alto, Calif., computer maker will offer the Rev F Opteron chips in its HP ProLiant DL385 G2 and DL585 G2 rack-mount servers as well as its ProLiant BL25p G2 and BL45p G2, which offer two and four sockets, respectively. Currently, the servers sell for prices starting in the $2,300 to $2,500 range with existing Opteron chips, according to HPs Web site.

HP will also add Opteron-based BL465c and BL685c blade servers, according to a statement furnished by the spokesperson.

IBM introduced five new Opteron-based servers on Aug. 1. The BladeCenter LS41—a blade server that can scale from two to four sockets—and the two-socket LS21 machines are designed for a variety of jobs, from mainstream business applications to databases and high-performance computing. IBM also introduced the System x3755, aimed at medium-size and large enterprises, the x3655 for such high-end workloads as databases and business intelligence, and the x3455 for jobs in high-performance computing clusters.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about IBMs new Opteron servers.

AMD will offer several Rev F chips. The chips, dubbed Next-Generation AMD Opteron processors by the company, will use a four-digit model number system. Those model numbers will still begin with a 1, 2 or an 8—numbers that have signified Opterons designed for one, two or four or more processor servers—while the second digit, a 2 in this case, will represent the chips socket generation, according to AMD. Digits three and four refer to relative performance. Thus of the first models to hit the market, the 1218, 2218 and 8218 will be outperformed by models 1220, 2220 and 8220. The chips range in list price from $749 for a 1218 to $2,649 for an 8220 SE model, AMD representatives said.

Just as Opteron chips have gained acceptance over time—and AMD is attempting to use them to gain deals in the business PC space as well—the chip maker will work to ensure that Torrenza follows a similar path.

Given that the co-processor strategy is a relatively young effort, launched only a few months ago in May 2006, AMD will continue to work to gain acceptance for it. Toward that end, AMD will promote the development of open standards based around the HTX port and Torrenza, possibly in the form of a supporting consortium.

"We want to do this in an open, public fashion. The goal here is to be able to foster innovation across the global community," OFlaherty said. He declined to offer more details on the efforts, however.

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