When Jerry Sanders bet the future of Advanced Micro Devices Inc. on the 32-bit Athlon, he won. Now, for the companys current CEO, Hector de Ruiz, and the 64-bit Opteron, its double or nothing.
AMD has spent much of the past three years or so discussing the “Hammer” X86-64 architecture, its advantages relative to Intels 64-bit Itanium, and the work AMD and its partners have done in preparing a hardware and software infrastructure to support the chip when it launches.
“The announcement of our upcoming AMD Opteron family is perhaps the most important single announcement in the history of our company,” said Hector Ruiz, chief executive of AMD, in a conference call with analysts this week. “It is the future of AMD, and its the future of the x86 architecture. We believe its the future of the computing industry.”
Over the past few days, AMD and some of its customers have begun to peel back the Opteron wrapping paper in order to give the industry a glimpse into that future.
On April 22, AMD will announce three processors, each using an Opteron-specific version of its “model number”—the 1.4GHz model 240, the 1.6GHz model 242, and the 1.8GHz model 244, according to John Crank, brand manager for Opteron.
A 2.0GHz model 246 Opteron is due later in the year. Eight-way 800 series Opterons are due late in the second quarter, about the time that 100-class uniprocessor Opterons will be available, Crank said. All Opterons designed for the server market contain 1MB of level-2 cache.
Though Crank declined to disclose the prices of the chip, one customer, who requested anonymity, said he purchased the model 240 for between $300 and $400, the 242 for about $700, and paid roughly $900 for the fastest model 244. The “official” prices of the Opteron wont be disclosed until the launch.
“Historically, when AMD feels it has a performance advantage it tends to match Intels pricing,” said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. “When they feel that performance is comparable to Intel, they tend to discount. I believe theres a real performance advantage for Opteron where Opteron pricing is comparable to Xeon pricing, in the $400 to $600 range.”
One of Opterons key advantages may be in its significantly low heat dissipation, which has allowed customers to design 1U rack-mounted servers. Some major OEMs have designed 2U rack-mounted servers using Intels 32-bit Xeon processor, halving the number of CPUs that can be placed in a server rack.
The Opteron is being rated at a thermal design power, or thermal tolerance, of 80 watts, according to sources. But OEMs familiar with the design say AMD is being generous.
“Thats the spec,” said Phil Hester, chief executive of Newisys, a Texas server startup wholly focused on the Opteron, and in which AMD owns a minority stake. “But the actual is more like 40 watts.”
Part of the Newisys sales pitch is to allow customers to touch the working Opteron chip package, which is “slightly warm to the touch,” Hester said.
The combination of pricing and low TDP has allowed customers like Newisys and its rivals to design 1U dual-processor rack-mounted systems, the first step in convincing top-tier customers to adopt the Opteron. Newisys will sell its servers to system builders through an agreement with distributor Avnets Applied Computing Unit, and then directly to top-tier customers.
“Our position is 64-bits for free,” compared to the Xeon, Hester said.
A recurring criticism of AMD has been that the company would not be able to withstand volume demand for its chips. But according to some, AMD has done a good job backing the channel with supplies of the Opteron.
“Absolutely,” said George Condon, Avnets executive vice president of the ACDs AMD Business Unit. “What were seeing from AMD is enough to support our needs at launch, and as demand increases throughout the quarter.”
As it fills supply lines, AMD is also considering new market opportunities, including the digital content creation workstation market, according to sources.
“An Opteron workstation would be a really groovy product,” Brookwood said. “A 32-bit machine still cant handle the big task of address space considerations.” Conventional 32-bit machines can only address 4Gbs of RAM—a lot for most PC users, but an artificial limitation when working with massive CGI files, he added.
The Supporting Cast
AMD cant pull the Opteron launch off by itself. It needs not only hardware support, but software support.
One company expected to show support on Tuesday at the chips New York launch is Nvidia, which will likely unveil its “Crush K8” workstation chipset. The product includes a GeForce4-class integrated graphics processor inside a 64-bit version of the nForce2 chipset, according to sources. The Crush K8 will begin shipping in volume in June, they said. The Opteron servers, which will ship next week, lack an AGP slot and only include onboard video.
Nvidia officials declined to comment.
Conventional 32-bit software, meanwhile, seems to be running well on the new 64-bit platform, using AMDs 32-bit compatibility mode. “AMD finally said last week that theyve been testing [32-bit software] for over three months now,” one customer said. “Its very robust. All 32-bit standard apps work. [Microsoft] Office works great. About 60 percent of the games work.”
Peripheral driver software for the Opteron may be a sticking point, however, as some vendors simply cant be persuaded to recompile for the 64-bit Opteron, the customer said.
While the launch of Opteron is AMDs biggest play, the companys stake is also being financed by a broad swath of industry companies, including firms like Newisys that have bet their own companies on the fate of the Opteron.
“It means a heck of a lot for AMD; it means tenfold more from an industry standpoint,” Newisys Hester said. “Opteron is revolutionizing the server environment.”
But for AMD, a backwards-compatible 64-bit processor is just the next logical step. “From AMDs standpoint, Opteron makes sense,” Crank said. “From a customer standpoint, it makes sense. And from an industry standpoint, it just makes sense. 64-bit is the future.”