Large order for AMD's Barcelona chip starts new Intel fight

AMD officials are hoping to recapture the momentum the company had nearly four years ago

Advanced Micro Devices is announcing delivery of its Barcelona quad-core processor this week.

In 2003, AMD released the Opteron, a 64-bit, x86 processor, into a world dominated by Intel's 32-bit chip. Opteron was a hit. Hardware vendors added it to their server lines, high-performance and businesses users adopted it, and Intel faced its biggest challenge yet in the business server market.

But Intel has responded ferociously to this challenge. Today, AMD is nearly one year behind Intel in releasing a quad-core processor, and its server market share is now in retreat, according to market research company IDC. With the launch of Barcelona, AMD officials are hoping to recapture the momentum the company had nearly four years ago.

Supercomputer users were among Opteron's earliest adopters, and that is one piece of Opteron history that may be repeated with release of the quad-core Barcelona. What may well become the world's largest supercomputer is now being built at the Texas Advanced Computing Center with Barcelona chips.

More than 15,000 Barcelona processors will be used in this system, capable of computer power in excess of 500 teraflops. A teraflop is 1 trillion floating-point operations per second.

Tommy Minyard, assistant director of the Austin-based computing centre, said that when the US$30 million system is finished early next year, it will have 63,000 cores in total. This supercomputer, called "Ranger," is using Sun Microsystems's Sun Blade 6000 servers, and each blade will have four physical processors. It will be used primarily for academic research. "It's going to be a very impressive system," Minyard said.

Minyard said Opteron was picked because of its floating-point and memory-sharing capabilities. When the advanced computing centre proposed this system about a year and a half ago, it set a chip-speed expectation of 2 GHz. Minyard said he had been hoping that AMD's quad chip — when the specs were finally announced — would have been a little faster, but it does meet their expectation. In terms of raw chip speed, Intel's most recent quad-core chip, the "Tigerton" Xeon 7300, reaches about 3 GHz.

Bruce Shaw, director of server and workstation product marketing at AMD, said he doesn't believe users have "the crushing need" they once did for high clock speed. "We think the real market is a balance of performance per watt and not speed at all cost," Shaw said.

When Opteron was released in 2003, AMD "snuck up on Intel and hit them with a hammer," said Crowford Del Prete, an analyst at IDC. At that time, AMD wasn't in the data centre, but it is now, and since then, manufacturers and users have invested in them.

But Intel is pushing back and it's been difficult on AMD, Del Prete said.

The change is evident in IDC's market numbers. In the second quarter of 2006, AMD-based x86 servers accounted for 15.3% of all server shipments worldwide, vs. 84.7% for Intel. In the fourth quarter of 2006, it was 14.7% for AMD and 85.3% for Intel.

In the second quarter of this year, AMD slipped to 14% of all x86 server based shipments, compared with 86% for Intel.

Del Prete said that "for several months, AMD has been caught pretty much flat-footed here." Now, with this new quad chip, he said, "it's a question now about their ability to execute."

AMD's chip design is generally praised by analysts. The chip is constructed on a single die, unlike Intel's, and analysts say the ability of the cores to connect directly to memory and share it as well are important to performance. Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at research firm Insight 64 in Saratoga, Calif., described AMD's approach on chip design as "elegant."

"Architecture can make up for lot of deficiencies, but brute force, i.e. clock frequency, can make up for some architectural deficiencies as well," Brookwood said.

How these two chips compare in performance over a variety of business systems won't be known until all the benchmarks are released, said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata in Nashua, N.H. Performance will also be affected by vendors and how they architect their systems around these processors.

"I don't think there will be a truly compelling reason to pick one or the other," said Haff of these quad-core processors. He said most users will make their choices based on what is being supplied by their system vendors.

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