September 9, 2007 9:00 PM PDT

AMD's Barcelona not a savior, yet

Advanced Micro Devices' quad-core Opteron processor is finally ready, but it's far from clear that this is the product that will help right AMD's ship.

AMD CEO Hector Ruiz will formally unveil the quad-core Opteron chip, previously code-named Barcelona, during an event in San Francisco Monday evening. Over a year in the making, and six months later than expected, Barcelona will be AMD's first chip with four processing cores.

Intel has had quad-core chips for servers since last November. The company chose an easier-to-implement method of putting four processing cores together by simply packaging two dual-core chips together. AMD took a different approach, integrating all four cores onto a single chip, with the belief that having all four cores together was a better fit for its architecture.

Will that insistence on a specific design goal make a difference? In some ways, it already has.

AMD has been forced to severely discount server processor prices this year to compete against Intel's quad-core chips, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. The company's sales force is in the middle of a reorganization following the departure of its top two sales executives. And because of Barcelona's delay, caused by technical glitches brought on by its challenging design, Ruiz will introduce Barcelona about 10 weeks before Intel's launches its second-generation quad-core server processor. The initial reviews have yet to surface, but it seems AMD might be able to stop the bleeding with Barcelona. The four major server vendors in the world--Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems--all plan to use Barcelona in their servers. And AMD thinks it can court new customers by emphasizing a different metric for measuring power consumption in data centers.

But AMD will not deliver--at least not yet--on promises made by Randy Allen, corporate vice president of AMD's server and workstation division, in January. "We expect across a wide variety of workloads for Barcelona to outperform Clovertown by 40 percent," Allen said. In May, Allen told reporters that Barcelona "will be the highest-performing x86 chip out there. It will blow away Clovertown."

There was no proof to those statements in the test results AMD distributed ahead of the Barcelona launch. In its briefing materials, the company touted only benchmark results that emphasized floating-point performance and memory bandwidth, which have always been strengths of the Opteron processor but do not cover the entire spectrum of the server market. And even among those benchmarks, Barcelona outperformed Intel's Xeon X5345 processor by more than 40 percent on only three criteria.

Barcelona will arrive in three different categories for high-performance, standard-issue, and energy-efficient server models. The high-performance models won't be available until the fourth quarter, but two standard and three energy efficient processors are now available for two-socket servers, the dominant segment of the market. Two processors for four-socket servers in both the standard and energy-efficient categories also will be available.

"ACP is meant to be the best real-world end-user estimate of what they are likely to see from the power consumption on the processor."
--Bruce Shaw, director of server and workstation marketing, AMD

In the standard category, AMD will launch processors at 2GHz and 1.9GHz, costing $389 and $319, respectively. The energy-efficient Opterons will launch at 1.9GHz, 1.8GHz and 1.7GHz.

That's slower than some had expected from Barcelona, and could have something to do with the company's earlier projections for Barcelona's performance against Intel. When "technical glitches" arise in processor production, they are often solved by running the chip at slower clock speeds until the problems can be ironed out.

AMD plans to launch 2.3GHz high-performance versions in the fourth quarter and will likely boost clock speed as momentum starts to grow behind the chip. The company demonstrated a 3GHz Barcelona chip at its analyst day in July. Clock speed is by no means the only measure of processor performance, but it is an important measure.

As a result, AMD will initially market its chips in part by using a new metric it developed for measuring the average power consumed by its processors. Power consumption has become a huge issue for companies looking to build large data centers. It's increasingly more expensive to provide electricity and cooling to data centers than it is to buy the servers themselves, forcing the chip and server industries to work on building more energy-efficient products.

But AMD customers who relied on the company's previous power metric of TDP (thermal design power) were putting too many resources into cooling and electrical supply, said Bruce Shaw, director of server and workstation marketing for AMD. That's because TDP was developed so server manufacturers would know much power the chip consumes in worst-case maximum-power situations that very rarely occur, and design their systems accordingly, he said.

So now AMD will advise customers of an Opteron processor's average CPU (central processing unit) power, or ACP. "ACP is meant to be the best real-world end-user estimate of what they are likely to see from the power consumption on the processor," Shaw said.

CONTINUED: Behind the metrics…
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Barcelona, AMD Opteron, quad-core, AMD, high-performance

5 comments

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Cnet & ZDnet biased against AMD?
Is it just me or is CNet & ZDnet (same company) just a little biased against AMD? Everyone knows that George Ou is an Intel zelot, but even simple product release stories are peppered with negative statements by staff bloggers.

Perhaps Intel is a big part of their advertising income?
Posted by Arbalest05 (83 comments )
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AMD's biggest Problem
AMD's biggest problem is advertising.
when was the last time you saw an ad on TV for AMD processors or an ad from a computer manufacturer that featured a "made with AMD processors" like they do with Intel?
If you ask the average consumer what AMD is, they couldn't tell you.
I know AMD doesn't have the deep pockets that Intel does but if you don't advertise you are never going to get your message out there.
This has always been AMD's weakest link.
Posted by gdmaclew (158 comments )
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All those cores maxed out?
I don't think so. Sure it's good to concentrate the CPUs down and keep the power consumption down, but systems still need ram, network and disk. Anyone care to guess where the bottle neck is?

Oh yeah, as far as getting these cpus on the desktop, it sure would be nice if more applications were written for 64bit and leveraged multiple cores.

And yes I am looking forward to a phenom workstation with lots of ram and fast drives because there's data mining to be done.
Posted by webdev511 (254 comments )
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Bad News for AMD
AMD has lost the plot and they have nobody but themselves to blame.

1) They made a HUGE tactical blunder by not bringing any quad-core chip to market in the last year while Intel sold tons of profitable 2x2 quad core chips. AMD keeps screaming about how they're chip will be better and faster, but that didn't help IT managers with immediate buying decisions and it doesn't help shareholders waiting over two quarters for revenue relief.

2) AMD bet that Intel couldn't build a true quad-core like Barcelona. All indications are that Intel will have a chip which is just as good, if not better, than Barcelona by early next year. This makes waiting for Barcelona seem even more foolish.

3) AMD is playing "hide the ball" with their performance stats, and that sounds like bad news if you read between the lines. When the AMD marketing people try to change their measuring stick to find some way of making their product look better in some other way than pure performance, you know they're in trouble. CPU speed/utility per watt consumed is an interesting metric, but it's still a secondary concern for some buyers who need raw performance.

So, AMD had a few years in the sun, and now they're going to be stuck at a distant #2 for a while. Over the next decade, Intel will inevitably get lazy with their success, AMD will pull something new and useful out of their hat, then the cycle will begin anew!

-Mister Winky
Posted by Mister Winky (301 comments )
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