AMD says CPU FAB, OK?

A trip to AMD's facilities in Germany yields insights

If nowhere else in the world, in the German city of Dresden, all signs point to AMD — literally. As you drive along the main drag, you see the exit for Prague, the exit for Berlin and the exit for AMD. It’s fitting given that AMD has carved out a village-size hunk of the Saxony countryside for its campus, where a pair of fabrication facilities — one heading for an active retirement and one whose ribbon lies freshly cut — stretch to the horizon. Floor after floor of cubicle farms house the home-grown engineers and skilled hands that produce every AMD64 CPU sold worldwide.

I took AMD up on its offer to attend the grand opening of Fab 36, the company’s semi-conductor manufacturing facility on which it broke ground just two years ago. I could have skipped the powder-dry press conference and gala that followed. The meetings I had with AMD’s masterminds made the 16,000 km trek worthwhile, however. I had my first shot at interviewing all of AMD’s top engineering and strategic brass all at once.

I was quite taken by the capabilities of AMD’s new facility. It not only churns out 100 million processors a year, it’s already producing 65-nanometer AMD microprocessors. No one outside AMD will ever see these and Fab 36’s initial parts will be 90nm AMD64 processors. The switch to the 65nm process is one AMD will take when the market will benefit from it. In the words of AMD CTO Phil Hester: “[AMD will] only advance technology in ways the user can feel.” A belief I’ve held from the beginning.

The white-boarding Hester did to lay out AMD’s strategy shows that he and others at AMD have plotted out enhancements to AMD64 that users will feel.

When I say user here, the emphasis is where AMD’s is: commercial systems, servers in particular. Shifting the focus to servers is an up-ending of AMD’s present strategy that gives volume and client CPUs top priority in R&D and production, with servers sort of bringing up the rear. AMD is wisely putting its prestige products first and the result will be a lowering of system prices, along with rapid advances in technology. Two short-term advantages I predict are drastic reductions in server power and cooling-related operating costs, with no sacrifice in performance (which Intel says is impossible), and eight-core servers priced within the reach of buyers for dual-processor, quad-core machines.

One strategic path that will knock you for a loop (and which I’ll detail soon) is AMD’s coming escape from the confines of Intel’s x86 instruction set. Up to this point, AMD has resisted the temptation to overhaul the x86, even though it sorely needs it. When Fab 36 cranks up, AMD will overcome that fear. AMD64 processors will take on performance, scalability, resource management and availability-related instruction set extensions that will be proprietary to AMD CPUs. Don’t freak out: AMD will keep its contract to be 100% compatible with Intel-standard processors. But the idea of seeing “optimised for AMD64” stamped on software boxes delights me. Another journalist at the same event posited that AMD’s technological lead over Intel will be short-lived and says it will be “game over” once Intel’s new Pentium M-derived cores debut across the product line. With due respect to my colleague, I believe AMD will extend its lead, showing Intel’s reactive strategy up for what it is.

Stay tuned to find out why I’m so sure of that.

Yager is chief technologist at the InfoWorld Test Centre. Email him at tom_yager@infoworld.com

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