Betting on Barcelona

AMD is readying its quad-core chip, but will it slow Intel's momentum?

The next chapter in the struggle between Intel and Advanced Micro Devices is about to unfold.

After months of speculation, AMD executives now say they are ready to begin shipping the companys much-anticipated quad-core Opteron processor, better known by its Barcelona code name, starting in August, with the chip finding its way into the hands of vendors by September.

For the past several months, with anticipation building and Intel surging ahead with its own Core architecture achievements, AMD had been quiet about its plans for Barcelona, with executives doling out tidbits of information about the x86 processor, while keeping mum about the exact launch date.

Then came June 29—with all the hoopla surrounding Apples launch of its iPhone—and the Sunnyvale, Calif., company announced that Barcelona would make an August debut and the first model would come in with a clock speed of 2GHz and remain within the same thermal envelopes—65 and 95 watts—as its dual-core chips.

The announcement that Barcelona would hit the streets by late summer with an initial clock speed that was lower than expected did not come off as smoothly as AMD could have hoped. The launch date seemed at least a month or more behind what the company hinted at earlier this year, then there were questions about clock speed and performance, and some of the benchmarks AMD used on its Web site—since removed—were panned by analysts.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about vendors beginning support for Barcelona.

Still, Barcelona is seen by some as the boost AMD needs to begin to right the ship after several shaky financial quarters. AMD reported July 19 a $600 million loss for the second quarter, due in large part to the ongoing price war with Intel. Still, a survey by iSuppli July 19 showed that AMD had kept its market share stable in the quarter, at 11.4 percent. However, in the same period last year, its share was 16.4 percent. The chips release will also begin to counter the momentum that Intel has reaped since its quad-core Xeon processor debuted in November.

Since that time, Intel has sold more than a million quad-core Xeon units and the Santa Clara, Calif., chip maker is expected to move ahead with shrinking its manufacturing process from 65 nanometers to 45 nanometers by years end, while its Caneland platform for multiprocessor servers arrives in the third quarter.

Target: Vendors

"The barcelona processor is going to deliver a huge value proposition for our customers in terms of performance, performance per watt and performance per dollar," Randy Allen, corporate vice president of AMDs Server and Workstation Division, said in an interview with eWeek. "Its a tremendous beachhead we are establishing in the next wave of server processing."

In some way, bringing the quad-core Opteron to market this time will be a bit easier than when its dual-core cousin hit the market in 2003, when AMD had to fight for all the vendor agreements it could muster. This time, lining up vendors should be less challenging.

Three smaller vendors—Supermicro, Tyan Computer and Uniwide Computer—have already said that they will build systems based on Barcelona. Sun Microsystems announced that its new blade architecture, the 6000 Modular System, has been designed to upgrade from dual-core to quad-core Opteron chips. In addition, Sun, also of Santa Clara, has plans to build a supercomputer—dubbed Constellation—with quad-core Opterons. All told, Allen expects about 50 platforms to be designed using Barcelona.

HP buys in

Christina tiner, a product marketing manager for Hewlett-Packard, said the Palo Alto, Calif., company is developing products across its server line that support the quad-core Opteron. Those products should begin shipping in the fourth quarter. Tiner said HP and its customers were impressed not only with the chips performance per watt, but also that it will remain in the same thermal envelope.

"It has great power efficiency and performance per watt," said Tiner. "The socket capabilities are also a great help to our customers, who are looking to continue to invest in their platforms."

Dean McCarron, an analyst with Mercury Research, said AMDs use of the same 1,207-pin socket that it uses with its dual-core Opterons will give the company a built-in base of platforms that will enable customers to easily upgrade to Barcelona. That aspect of Barcelona, he said, was overlooked in some of the initial media coverage of the chip, when more emphasis was placed on clock speeds and performance benchmarks.

"They [AMD officials] have a fairly well-developed market of their own with tier-one OEMs, many of which use the dual-core products and the current sockets in their various [product] form factors," McCarron said. "With Barcelona, AMD has made it so users can just drop it into the platforms."

Even with the release of Barcelona, McCarron said the marketplace that AMD is about to enter is entirely different from the one it stormed into in 2003, taking market share from Intel and forcing the chip giant to rethink its companywide strategy. For one thing, Intels Core microarchitecture is much improved, and the companys intention to move aggressively to its Penryn family of chips later this year shows that its manufacturing plans remain on schedule, McCarron said.

In the coming weeks, AMD customers can expect a familiar rundown of Barcelona innovations—from the chips Direct Connect Architecture, which allows for improved memory and bandwidth by directly connecting memory to the CPU, to its PowerNow technology, which can increase or reduce the amount of power to the chip depending on the demand.

AMD will also begin talking about its processors ability to handle 128-bit computing on each core. That will offer better performance for high-intensity scientific applications, Allen said. The chip has also been designed to allow each of the four cores to have its own Level 1 and Level 2 cache.

Allen said AMD also has been working aggressively with companies such as VMware, Microsoft and XenSource to improve the chips ability to virtualize hardware and help the performance of virtualization software.

Intels take

Intel has also been working on improving the virtualization abilities of its processors.

"Intel provides leading performance today on dual-processor platforms and soon we expect to introduce the industrys first x86 server with four or more quad-core processors," said Stephen Smith, vice president of Intels Digital Enterprise Group. "For example, the new Xeon 7300 quad-core processors will have up to 2.25 [times] performance-per-watt improvement over our current products as they bring the energy-efficient performance of the Core microarchitecture [to servers with four or more sockets]."

David Driggers, chief technology officer of Verari Systems, a blade server vendor based in San Diego, offered a mixed review of Barcelonas performance so far. He said that while Barcelonas four cores each allow four calculations per clock cycle, offering better performance in that respect, the 2GHz clock speed is about 20 percent slower than he expected. AMD officials have said that as additional Barcelona models roll out, the clock speed will increase with every release.

Driggers is also concerned that AMD has been stingy with releasing the various Barcelona models so that his company can test the processor with a combination of different customer applications. By contrast, Driggers said he has already received five different processor models for Intels Caneland platform.

"Customers had been very excited about Barcelona and now they are a little nervous, and they are looking to us to tell them more about it," Driggers said, adding that he believes that since Barcelona can plug into existing dual-core sockets, the company might hold off releasing the chip for as long as possible.

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