NEW YORK—In search of a path to long-term profitability, Advanced Micro Devices is pushing back into the high-performance PC and data center server markets, focusing on emerging markets like immersive computing.
Speaking at a May 6 financial analyst meeting – the company’s first in three years — CEO Lisa Su and other AMD executives outlined a roadmap that includes a new high-end PC chip based on the upcoming “Zen” architecture, and new Radeon graphics products. The graphics products will feature new high-bandwidth memory (HBM) technology in the short-term, and x86- and ARM-based chips for servers and other data center systems in the mid-term.
Su, who took over as CEO more than six months ago, said the goal is to “gain profitable market share” that is sustainable going into the years ahead. To do that, AMD officials had to decide what markets the company could best compete in and what spaces to ignore. With that in mind, they decided to focus on premium products as well gaming and immersive computing, where the company’s expertise in high performance CPUs and GPUs, energy efficiency and visualization can be leveraged.
The discussion comes as AMD looks for ways to compete with larger rival Intel—which has significant money and manufacturing advantages—in an industry that is seeing significant and rapid changes brought on by the rise of such trends as IT mobility, big data analytics, the Internet of things (IoT) and the cloud. At the same time, AMD, which is committed to using ARM’s low-power system-on-a-chip (SoC) architecture in the data center, will have to compete with other ARM partners, including Qualcomm, Applied Micro and Cavium.
Su said the key was figuring out what AMD did best and not worry about other markets that did not offer a good return. That includes low-end PCs, smartphones and the tens of billions of devices that will make up the IoT. The key was to simplify, she said.
“We don’t need to do everything,” Su said. “We need to pick the things we can do very well.”
In the gaming segment, that includes not only the consoles from Microsoft and Sony that have been the key revenue generators over the past year, but also casino and cloud gaming ,as well as high-end PC and graphics chips. Immersive computing includes virtual and augmented reality, digital signage and thin clients, while the data center means servers, storage systems, networking infrastructure and high-performance computing (HPC).
AMD executives expect to return to profitability in the second half of the year after losses in the first six months. Devinder Kumar, senior vice president and CFO said the company will be able to build its cash reserves from $800 million to as much as $1 billion.
The AMD roadmap executives laid out was met with a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism from the financial analysts. Some analysts brought up AMD’s unreliable performance in the past and its history of developing strong products which later turned out to be one-hit wonders. One example is its initial 64-bit Opterons, developed more than 10 years ago. The server chip enabled AMD to grab server chip market share from Intel, but later AMD failed to effectively follow through on subsequent offerings.
Su admitted that there had been mistakes in the past, but said she was confident that the company this time has successfully mapped out where it can offer differentiation from competitors, and has put in place plans to ensure continued innovation.
To get back into the high-performance desktop market, AMD next year will launch its Zen CPU, a core design that the company has been working on for more than two years. The chip will be a departure from previous AMD chips, which featured a technology called Cluster-based Multi-Threading (CMT) designed to improve the performance of the chips. Zen instead will use simultaneous multi-threading (SMT), a technology similar to Intel’s Hyper-Threading.
AMD Takes Aim at High-Performance PCs as Part of Larger Roadmap
It will support DDR4 memory, will feature a FinFET transistor design for the 14-nanometer chips and will include a new high-bandwidth, low-latency cache system. The new AMD FX CPU will offer a 40 percent performance improvement over current chips, the company said.
The Zen design eventually will play a significant role in a range of AMD products over the next couple of years, according to Mark Papermaster, CTO and senior vice president of technology and engineering. The design will be used in chips ranging from PC chips to server processors. In addition, to meet AMD’s need for continued innovation, the company already has another team working on the follow-on to Zen, which Papermaster dubbed “Zen+.”
AMD also announced that its next-generation Radeon GPUs will feature HBM, a memory technology that AMD has been working on for several years and that offers three times the performance-per-watt of the current GDDR5 and a 50 percent increase in energy efficiency. The HBM technology will begin rolling out in discrete GPUs this year and will find its way into other AMD products over the next few years.
HBM essentially stacks memory chips for greater performance, power efficiency and density.
Papermaster also teased with a promise of other technologies that will come with upcoming graphics products, such as virtual reality enablement and, next year, the FinFET technology and high-performance capabilities with twice the energy efficiency of current GPUs.
Su also announced the new M300 series mobile GPUs for notebooks, adding that system makers will begin announcing new PCs with the chips in the near future.
The CEO said the data center effort “is probably the biggest single bet we’re making today.” AMD over the past few years has focused more on other segments of its business than it has on its x86 Opteron chips, losing significant market share to Intel. However Su and Forrest Norrod, senior vice president and general manager of the company’s Enterprise, Embedded and Semi-Custom Unit, both said the market represents a $300 billion market opportunity that the company will go after with both its x86 and ARM-based processors.
Both also said they expect the server business to really begin ramping in 2016 and 2017. AMD will bring the Zen design to its Opteron product line and will follow that in 2017 with K12, a server SoC created through an ARM architecture a license. Until then, AMD will rely on the long-awaited Opteron 1100A “Seattle” SoC to kick off its ARM-based server chip efforts. Seattle is due to launch in the second half of the year, with systems from vendors ramping into 2016.
AMD officials already have made some decisions in simplifying its data center portfolio. They announced last month that the company was shedding its SeaMicro microserver business, which it had bought three years ago for $334 million. Su said the microserver market was not growing as quickly as expected, and that AMD no longer wanted to be in the systems business.
In addition, Su said AMD is ending its Project Skybridge, designed to offer socket compatibility between its x86- and ARM-based chips. Customers told AMD that they didn’t need such compatibility, so AMD will focus on other projects, she said.