These days, engineers at Sun Microsystems Inc. have their counterparts at chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices Inc. on speed dial.
Sun, whose turnaround plan bets heavily AMD Opteron-based processor servers, has gained the ear of the chipmaker over the last two years and thus is helping shape the future of the Opteron, which charged on the scene in early 2003 as a competitor to Intel Corp.s Xeon.
Close ties between server makers and chip manufacturers are common. The manufacturers must squeeze the greatest-possible performance and reliability out of their machines in order to compete. That means AMD is close to all of its Opteron customers, company representatives said. IBM, in addition to being the first brand-name server maker to offer the Opteron in a system, has assisted AMD in other ways, including providing the company with assistance in chip manufacturing.
But the ties between Sun and AMD have allowed the Santa Clara, Calif., hardware maker to gain access to special versions of the Opteron—the chips are available to all, however Sun was first to use them—and also to influence the design of forthcoming versions of the chip, top executives at the two companies said in a recent interview with Ziff Davis Internet.
“Over the last year and a half, weve not only been selling products to Sun, but also working on future roadmap elements of both of our product sets,” said Dirk Meyer, president of AMDs Microprocessor Solutions Sector. “Over the course of time, the people in both organizations have gotten to know their counterparts and, at the end of the day, its the quality of the personal relationships between our two companies that matters.”
Sun first looked at the Opteron in 2000, not long after AMD first made its plans for the chip public. At that time AMD was pitching a new approach that involved extending x86, the underpinnings architecture of PC processors from itself and Intel Corp., to 64 bits from 32 bits, while retaining reverse compatibility. The idea piqued interest at Sun. But IBM beat it to the market, joining AMD at the Opterons launch in New York City and offering the chip in a rack mount server for high performance computing clusters. Sun got serious in the spring of 2003 after benchmark tests proved positive and engineers discovered Suns Solaris 8 operating system could run on Opteron servers without modifications, said John Fowler, executive vice president of Suns Network Systems group.
Discussions accelerated during the summer of 2003 and the companies announced a partnership in November 2003. Sun followed with its first Opteron servers in February 2004 and got even more serious about them following its purchase of Kealia Inc., then a startup designing Opteron servers, in February, 2004. The purchase gave its Opteron hardware design efforts a boost and brought back Andy Bechtolsheim, one of the companys founders, who had left. Sun made Andy Bechtolsheim its Opteron guru and used Kealias designs as the basis if its latest line of Sun Fire Opteron servers. The first of those machines, sometimes referred to by the code-name Galaxy, came out in September.
The Sun Fire servers line, along with new machines based on the UltraSPARC IV+ processor are part of a broad refresh of all three of Suns major classes of servers and a vital step in helping the company compete against rivals such as Dell Inc., IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co., and to help right itself financially, analysts have said.
Suns Opteron effort has begun to pay off for the company. It saw its server unit shipments increase by 7 percent to about 331,000 servers during its fiscal year 2005, which ended on June 30, 2005. Of those shipments about 50,000 were x86 machines, representing a 117 percent year-over-year increase, the company said in its fourth fiscal quarter 2005 earnings call in July.
Although Opteron servers were a relatively small part of Suns shipments during the past fiscal year, the companies, through their discourse, are working to keep the trend moving upward.
“Theres a lot of back and forth on the product roadmaps. We go to AMD and say wed like the following changes in your product road map. None of these are exclusive, but they take those along with others and go to work on the product roadmap,” Fowler said.
“We provide input on virtually any part of the systems. Whether AMD can actually implement all of that or whether it makes sense for them it is sort of a different thing,” he added.
The discourse has already paid off for Sun as AMD delivered a higher performance Opteron chip—its Opteron x80 series, containing chips like the 2.4GHz Opteron 280—earlier because Sun wanted to use it in its Galaxy line. The chipmaker also arranged the Opteron 100 series pinout—the pattern of pins on the back of the chip package, which attach it to a servers motherboard—based on Suns input, Meyer said.
Next Page: When Sun speaks, AMD listens.
When Sun speaks, AMD
Although the chips are not exclusive to Sun and the company didnt necessarily get earlier access to them than others, it shows the length AMD is willing to go to, the executives said.
“Looking forward, to a much larger degree, what were doing is a function of what Sun and others tell us—but Sun has a very loud voice inside our shop—therefore the silicon that comes out is almost a reflection of the systems Sun has in mind to begin with,” Meyer said.
But its a more organic process than Sun just giving AMD a list of features it would like added to the Opteron. Engineers go back and forth on a daily basis, while formal reviews take place every few months. AMD has reviewed most of Suns product designs. AMD is, at the moment, testing the follow-on to Galaxy, Fowler said.
Fowler, for his part, would like to see AMD continue to boost the Opterons performance per watt of energy it consumes.
“I think AMD is working on it,” he said. “We dont help them design any of their chips. But weve gone to them and said, Hey. The following features, over the long run, would really help in this area.”
AMD will incorporate Suns ideas for future chips, such as the successor to the current Opteron, Meyer said.
“The standard mode of operation is going to be one of AMD engineers involved in the specific design of AMD processor products. But those engineers will get substantial input from their counterparts at Sun, especially relative to features that influence system design, whether its memory controller capabilities, Hypertransport capabilities of the future or what have you,” he said. “We do the design, but based on input from Sun. Thats the model.”
Sun has weighed in on performance, energy efficiency, reliability, serviceability and things like memory, Fowler said.
“We have provided input that would go into processor designs that are quite a few years out. So we havent been shy,” he said.
AMD is listening intently as both companies goals are similar. The chipmaker wants to further its goals of acquiring larger market shares in servers and overall x86 chip shipments. It passed about 10 percent of x86 server chip shipments during the second quarter. But it is aiming to garner 30 percent or more of shipments, over time, Meyer said.
“I want to be known as [having] the best server technology out there in the x86 area. I also want AMD to be known for how good a job we do building technology around end users and our customers requirements,” he said.
Suns ambition is similar: Boost sales by offering products that range from single processor servers, which start at less than $1,000, to large, multi-processor machines for high-end applications.
“Whats going to be particularly interesting also, I think, is as you move up into eight socket [servers]—Intel is presently is only going up in there with Itanium—theres a whole area of the marketplace that I think AMD…in general can do extremely well at,” Fowler said.
Sun has said that an eight-socket Sun Fire Opteron machine will be part of its Galaxy line in the near future.