AMD leads by listening to software makers

The chipmaker has established a track record of being responsive to the needs of OEMs and ISVs, says Tom Yager

AMD has taken great care so far to make sure that Opteron CPUs and system platforms, and the high-end desktop platforms that are derived from Opteron, aren't seen by OEMs and ISVs as requiring any special treatment. In years past, AMD has encouraged me to test Opteron using Intel's compilers, reinforcing the message that AMD does exactly what Intel does, only faster, and in some cases, at a lower cost. With Barcelona, AMD was adamant that I not use Intel's compilers. AMD prefers The Portland Group's compilers, but failing that, AMD would like to see me use the GNU 4.2 open source tool chain, which has never been recognised as a producer of thoroughly optimised code. That's the first time any hardware vendor has sent me to GNU for performance tests. What gives?
Intel's not setting AMD's agenda any more. Intel's compilers no longer produce the fastest Opteron code by virtue of Opteron's hewing to the least capable platform standard. AMD has outgrown Intel. Hardware and software vendors that utilise AMD platforms are now steering AMD's strategy. AMD is all about giving OEMs and ISVs what they want, and that's precisely the approach that originally put Intel on top.I've always pressured AMD to evangelise to ISVs to get them to optimise for Opteron. Margaret Lewis, AMD's director of commercial solutions, manages ISV relationships and developer programmes for AMD. She thinks it won't work to push ISVs into optimising for Barcelona, even though that effort would pay handsome dividends for software vendors in terms of differentiation. Instead, Margaret is looking to Barcelona to "get [AMD] a seat at the grown-ups' table." She wants AMD and Intel seen as being on "an even keel". That kind of talk has always made me tense up. It seems like AMD is determined to hide its light under a bushel basket.I've been looking at it all wrong. Getting ISVs to optimise for AMD is backward. AMD is optimising its hardware to meet ISVs' and OEMs' requirements and visions, and that's an approach with a history of success.The grown-ups' table to which Margaret Lewis refers is where agendas are set and where multi-billion dollar, forward-looking strategies are shaped. It's where Microsoft, Novell, Red Hat, IBM, Sun, Apple, VMware, Xen, GNU, and the rest of that tiny number of influential players sit. Ever since the 80386, Intel has been at the head of that table.Intel used to be a fantastic listener, even though it took its feedback from only one source. Intel's x86 chips, right down to the instruction set, evolved almost entirely on insight derived from a commercial market that kept saying, "We might jump from RISC to x86 if only Microsoft would ..." Intel and Microsoft paired to knock down objections. In my view, Pentium II nailed it, Intel nailed it and customers started bringing Windows into server roles. Make no mistake: Intel and Microsoft created the commercial x86 market, and they did it by working closely together. That is a model for success.Intel misinterpreted its market dominance to mean that it no longer served the will of its partners. Intel forgot how to listen. The clearest evidence of this is in Intel's "tick tock" hardware updates, with microarchitecture overhauls and speed tweaks happening on alternating years. Tick tock fits no one's strategic objectives but those of Intel, analysts, and those of its shareholders who, like Intel, see the commercial systems market as one in which Intel sets the pace. All they see is Intel forcing system buyers back to the table every two years. That's not in anyone's interest; in private, even system manufacturers admit that they're not wild about the idea. AMD CTO Phil Hester impressed me with the lesson of bringing new technology to market only when customers can feel it. My error is in failing to keep in mind who AMD means when it uses the word "customer". Fortunately, AMD is more focused.For Barcelona, AMD went back to the major players in PC and enterprise computing, the big guns in systems and software that have been dancing to Intel's drumbeat for so long, to ask them "so, what do you want?" If anything has slowed the pace of uptake of the Opteron platform, it is that ISVs and OEMs aren't yet accustomed to the idea of being asked what they want. They're used to scrambling to be first to support new chip features marketed by Intel. I think AMD was heartened by the first answer it got to its question: "We're all agreed that we don't want the disruption of a new architecture every other year for the sake of keeping a marketing-driven schedule." Then ISVs and OEMs opened up and began talking about what they do want, and the first product of that ongoing interaction is Barcelona.For example, Barcelona's headline feature, power management, springs from a desire among system software vendors and OEMs not to get stuck managing power in ways that change with every tick in the microarchitecture. Barcelona's power conservation is, using AMD's words, fire and forget. The OS doesn't have to track load and tell the platform when to throttle up or down. It's all automatic, and as AMD gets smarter at it, systems will get more power-efficient whether the OS manages power or not. Another requested feature is 128-bit floating point. It's nice to have SSE (streaming single instruction, multiple data (SIMD) extensions) around, but it'd also be great if apps that need faster and more precise floating point could get it without being rewritten to use SSE for all of their math. Nested Page Tables, marketed by AMD as Rapid Virtualisation Indexing, is another request from major partners who see virtualisation as the way forward.In the transition from Opteron to Barcelona, AMD has established a track record of being responsive to the needs of OEMs and ISVs. AMD has taken over the lesson that Intel, in its complacency, forgot: CPUs and system platforms live to serve software. AMD won't tick tock along with Intel. Instead, it will march to the drumbeat of IBM, Microsoft, Novell, Red Hat, Sun, and the handful of others who are probably a bit shocked to see so much of what they asked for in Barcelona, and who look to AMD to continue to architect hardware based on their requirements. Since these major players are all competing by doing better than others at furthering their customers' objectives, AMD's approach gives IT and commercial system buyers the loudest voice of all.

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