AMD Aims to Reinvigorate x86 Server Business

The chip maker, on the strength of its upcoming "Zen" core design, expects to start winning back lost market share from Intel in 2016 and 2017.

data center

When Advanced Micro Devices launched its first Opteron server processor in 2003, it sent a jolt through the server market.

At the time, larger rival Intel was pushing its Itanium platform for the growing numbers of 64-bit workloads coming into the marketplace, moving away from the x86 architecture that formed the foundation of its Xeon processors.

AMD officials argued that there was no reason to abandon the x86 architecture, and with Opteron introduced the first 64-bit x86 processor. It could run both 64- and 32-bit applications, and was embraced by both server OEMs and end users, persuading Intel to bring 64-bit capabilities to its Xeon processors and make Itanium a niche high-end technology. Within a few years, AMD's share of the x86 server chip space grew to more than 26 percent.

AMD's market share now stands at about 1.5 percent—Intel's is more than 98 percent—due to technological and market missteps, focus on such aspects as power efficiency and core counts, and most recently an effort to develop low-power ARM-based server chips.

"AMD really hasn't been focused on instructions-per-clock as it relates to their core," Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, told eWEEK. "They haven't been investing in their core IP."

That's about to change, according to President and CEO Lisa Su and other company executives. Speaking to financial analysts May 6 in New York City, Su said the data center will be one of the three legs of the stool—the others being gaming and immersive computing—that will bring AMD not only back to profitability, but to sustained profitability. And the primary focus of that effort will be the x86 server space. The company is eschewing many low-margin businesses—such as low-cost PCs—to invest in areas that require high-performance computing. The x86 server space—particularly with the growing compute-intensive workloads like big data analytics—is one of those areas.

AMD's data center focus will include not only servers, but also workstations, networking and storage. However, Su and other executives spent much of their time talking about plans for the x86 server market. The data center "is probably the biggest single bet we're making today," she said.

Forrest Norrod, senior vice president and general manager of the company's Enterprise, Embedded and Semi-Custom Unit, said the growing need for choice in the x86 server space was important not only to drive competition, but also for improving the economics and innovation in the space.

"So AMD is getting back into the x86 server market and providing that choice," said Norrod, who came to AMD several months ago after serving as head of Dell's server business.

There are a number of moving parts to AMD's plans. The company is developing new x86 Opterons based on the upcoming "Zen" core design that will first appear in PC chips while at the same time changing the timelines for its ARM-based server systems-on-a-chip (SoCs). There also are plans to create a high-performance server accelerated-processing unit (APU) that will include the CPU and GPU on the same die. Norrod and Su said they expect to start seeing gains in the data center space in 2016 and ramping into 2017.

At the same time, AMD is shedding efforts that didn't fit in with plans. The company announced last month that it was ditching its SeaMicro microserver business, which it bought in 2012 for $334 million. The dense microserver market was not growing as quickly as expected, and officials wanted to get out of the systems business, Su said. In addition, the company has ended its SkyBridge project for developing pin-compatible x86 and ARM chips, with the CEO saying there was little customer demand for it.

Instead, the company in the second half of the year will launch its long-awaited ARM-based Opteron A1100A "Seattle" SoC, which leverages ARM's Cortex-A57 cores. The chip was first sampled in the first half of 2014, but Su and Norrod said there were adjustments the company needed to make to the design based on feedback from the sampling before releasing the processor.