AMD Puts Spotlight on Upcoming Zen Processors

During an event with journalists and analysts, AMD executives demonstrated Zen-based desktop PC and server chips, which will begin shipping later this year.

AMD, Zen processor

SAN FRANCISCO—Fifteen months after announcing plans to roll out an entirely new x86 processor microarchitecture that would scale from high-end servers down to notebook PCs, executives with Advanced Micro Devices laid the groundwork for chips that will feature the new "Zen" core, which they expect will become the cornerstone of a strategy to win back business and consumer PC users and become a significant player again the data center.

During an event here Aug. 17 before a group of journalists and analysts, AMD President and CEO Lisa Su and Mark Papermaster, senior vice president and CTO, demonstrated working processors aimed at high-end desktop PCs and servers that showed significant improvements in performance and power efficiency over company's current generations of processors. The chips, they said, will compete favorably with Intel's portfolio of chips.

They also provided a clearer road map of the Zen-based chips' roll-out, noting that desktops powered by the upcoming "Summit Ridge" chips are planned to begin shipping in the first quarter 2017 although some may hit the market late this year, Su said. The new chips will use the same AM4 socket as the company's latest seventh-generation A-Series chips announced this summer, which include DDR4 memory, PCIe Gen 3 interconnect and SATA Express.

The Zen-based server chip—dubbed "Naples"—is scheduled to begin shipping in systems during the second quarter next year, followed by Zen-based notebooks in the second half of 2017. CPUs and accelerated-processing units (APUs)—which include both the CPU and GPU on the same piece of silicon—are slated to begin shipping after that.

The demonstrations of the chips and the new timeline information comes more than a year after Su, Papermaster and other AMD executives outlined their plans for reviving the flagging company and returning it to sustainable profitability. Those plans, revealed in May 2015, included focusing the chip maker's efforts on a particular set of markets, including high-end client systems, servers in the data center and immersive computing environments, such as virtual reality (VR) and gaming.

Over the past 12-plus months, AMD has made a number of moves to meet those goals. The company has put a focus on its graphics technologies, creating the Radeon Technology Group business unit and, more recently, rolling out new GPUs based on its latest Polaris architecture. In addition, AMD in June launched its seventh-generation A-Series chips that officials said would challenge Intel's Core processors in the PC space, and has entered into joint venture deals to increase its presence in the huge Chinese market.

AMD's semicustom chips also now power both Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation game consoles, and more semicustom chip deals are on the way, Su said.

Zen Chips at Heart of AMD's Plans to Revive Profits

At the center of AMD's plans was the Zen, a new architecture built from the ground up to help the company meet the enterprise demands for greater scalability, performance, power efficiency and affordability brought on by the cloud, VR and augmented reality, data analytics, big data and other trends. The goal of Zen was to remake the x86 architecture for a more modern era by driving up the performance of chips while keeping a lid on power consumption, Papermaster said during the event.

Last year, he set the goal of hitting a 40 percent improvement in instructions-per-clock performance over AMD's current chip—a goal that he showed off during the demonstration of an eight-core, 16-thread Summit Ridge chip running the multithreaded Blender rendering software. In addition, in a head-to-head comparison with a similarly configured "Broadwell-E" processor from Intel, the Summit Ridge chip delivered comparable performance and power efficiency.

The demonstration of a 32-core, 64-thread Naples server system-on-a-chip (SoC) also showed significant performance and efficiency gains.

In an interview with eWEEK, Su said AMD "made a big bet" by spending the time and resources to create a new microarchitecture, but it was a "high-risk, high-reward" bet that needed to be made for AMD to push its way back into the picture for both PCs and servers. With Zen hitting the performance goals that were set more than a year ago and the expected launch of the first chips just months away, the bet is paying off, she said.

"I would agree that this is the biggest product launch [for AMD] in 10 years," Su said. "We're exactly where we thought we would be."

Industry analysts were impressed with what they saw during the event, though they were cautious when discussing AMD's future.

"Although they still have a ways to go ... I can see them becoming competitive once again in desktops and servers," Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64, told eWEEK.

Similarly, Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy, said he liked what he saw, though he also was wary.

"If they can deliver on this, it will be the biggest thing they've delivered in 10 years," Moorhead said.

He was referring to more than a decade ago, when AMD surprised Intel with the delivery of Opteron, the first 64-bit x86 server chip that offered greater performance and power efficiency than anything its larger rival could offer. The market embraced Opteron, and for a while AMD was able to grow is share of the x86 server market to well over 20 percent. However, between Intel marshaling its considerable resources to catch up and missteps by AMD, that market share dwindled, and now Intel chips run more than 95 of all data center servers.