Processor wars heat up as AMD, Intel add cores

After months of delays, Advanced Micro Devices' quad-core Barcelona chip will become generally available in April, but a newly announced six-core processor developed by rival Intel will force AMD to play catchup once again.

Intel on Monday said a six-core processor code-named  Dunnington will be available in the second half of this year. AMD, meanwhile, will ship Barcelona to partners later this month, making it broadly available from resellers sometime in April, AMD vice president of commercial business Kevin Knox told Network World this week.

"Barcelona is a step up but it's really too late," says Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds. "They needed Barcelona in the second half of last year."

Barcelona, the code name for AMD's newest Opteron processor, is in limited availability and being used mostly in high-performance computing facilities such as the Texas Advanced Computing Center and the Holland Computing Center at the University of Nebraska. AMD initially planned general availability for the end of 2007, but AMD held back after discovering a problem at high-stress workloads. "We went ahead and fixed it in the silicon," Knox says. "Systems would hang for certain things, virtualization wasn't performing properly. It wasn't data corruption."

Intel has had quad-core Xeon processors on the market since early 2007 and in September unveiled the Xeon 7300 quad-core chips, which are designed for high-end servers with four or more processors.

Even with Barcelona hitting general availability, AMD's performance lags behind Intel in processor speed and bandwidth utilization rates, according to Reynolds. "It's going to be Intel winning the performance battle for the next year and a half," he says. "But you can never count out AMD and we'll see what they deliver in 2009."

Knox says AMD's newest chip will deliver better performance than Intel, and that new instructions at the chip level will enable virtualized workloads to operate more efficiently on the processor. Customers will see a sizable improvement in price performance per watt, he says.

"We've gone from dual to quad-core while maintaining the same thermal envelope," Knox says. "This is more than just quad-core. It is a significant re-architecture of Opteron, the most significant since we've introduced it."

HP will be among the first resellers to take advantage of Barcelona. The vendor announced on Monday that an eight-socket x86 server using the quad-core AMD processors will be available from HP in May. (Compare server products.)

Dell, Sun, and IBM are among the other vendors preparing servers based on the new quad-core processors, according to Knox. "You'll see a fair number of systems on the market in April," he says.

Being late to the quad-core market poses challenges, but Knox says he's confident. "There's always the challenge that [Intel's] the incumbent in the four-way market," he says. "We think in some ways it's a good thing, in some ways it's a bad thing. They've certainly raised awareness of quad-core."

Intel's next move is to raise awareness of six-core. While an eight-core server might have seemed like the next logical step, Reynolds notes that there's no technical reason to double the number of cores every time. Intel said its Dunnington processor will support FlexMigration virtualization technology, which creates a pool of virtualized resources that can be moved across multiple types of Intel servers.

Intel also discussed several other multi-core projects in the works, including a new Itanium processor code-named "Tukwila," a quad-core chip for high-performance computing. Tukwila "is the world's first 2 billion transistor microprocessor and is projected to deliver more than double the performance of the current generation Itanium processor," Intel states in a fact sheet released Monday.

Another future processor discussed by Intel is Nehalem, which would have between two and eight cores and have four times as much memory bandwidth as today's highest-performing Xeon systems. The Nehalem processor architecture will eventually be used in everything from notebook computers to high-performance servers, according to Intel.

Intel also said it's investing in technologies that will accommodate next-generation game systems with better graphics and game controllers that respond to human motion, as well as medical imaging sensors that give doctors real-time information about patients during computer-guided operations.

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