Exclusive Bruised by a resurgent Intel, AMD wishes it had tackled the four-core era with a different approach. The chipmaker stands behind the technical merits of pumping out a so-called native four-core chip with all four cores on the same piece of silicon.
It, however, admits that Intel gained a major marketing edge by melding a pair of dual-core processors with a multi-chip module (MCM) when it released the "Clovertown" version of Xeon last year. That four-core chip allowed Intel to claim a server processor technology milestone ahead of AMD for the first time in about three years.
“If I could do something different, I wish we would have immediately done a MCM - two dual cores and call it a quad-core,” said Mario Rivas, an EVP at AMD, during a recent interview in Austin, “because, I guess, the market sucks it up.”
Before Clovertown, AMD enjoyed one of the more remarkable runs in server chip marketing and production. It beat Intel to 64-bit extensions for x86 chips and then nailed the release of mainstream, dual-core chips. Besides hitting these milestones, AMD clobbered Intel’s Xeon on overall performance and performance per watt - two of the server world’s favored metrics.
While a high-end part such as Clovertown misses the mainstream, it has proved popular enough with the most demanding customers and analysts to toss the technology and marketing edge back toward Intel. Recent sales figures show that Intel has regained server processor share from AMD, and Intel has shown leading performance on a wide variety of benchmarks.
So, AMD is going retro with its upcoming release of the four-core Barcelona chip, hoping to tap into the momentum of yesteryear.
“Barcelona is as much of event in the x86 world as Opteron was when we launched it,” Rivas said.
Other AMD executives have used this line in recent months, although we’re not sure the pitch fits.
The release of Opteron, as mentioned, gave AMD the first 64-bit x86 chip. More importantly, it turned AMD into a real contender in the server market for the first time.
Barcelona seems like less of a game changer. At the most basic level, it’s simply a better performing chip than today’s dual-core Opterons. AMD expects the processor to provide a 40 per cent surge on most software loads and a much higher boost on floating point-heavy software. Best of all, the chip slides right into existing systems.
AMD hopes to continue the socket compatibility with the four-core follow-on to Barcelona called Shanghai and the eight-core follow-on Montreal - a tidbit you may consider a Register exclusive.
El Reg: Will the upcoming chips Shanghai and Montreal be socket compatible as well?
MR: Yes. That’s the goal. We have not released detailed specs that I know of on those two devices, but that (strategy) has served us well.
Rivas declined to discuss what might happen with Bulldozer - meant to be a native eight-core chip - but hinted that “we have analyst day coming up, and I don’t want to share any more than I have to (before that).”
While Barcelona's release may not match Opteron blow-for-blow, it will stand as a crucial product for AMD’s near-term success.
Sources tell us that the chip is cranking through software at an unreal clip in the labs, beating out AMD’s oft-cited 40 per cent performance gain figure.
Over the last couple of months, AMD executives seemed to change the language around Barcelona’s delivery date, making us wonder if the chip was suffering from a delay. Top staffers started talking up a “late Summer” release rather than a “mid-year” shipments as previously promised.
Rivas said the mid-year plan holds, and we’re looking for Barcelona to ship in July.
The chip can’t come fast enough for AMD’s channel partners who have suffered at the hands of Tier 1 demand.
“We got a little bit distracted,” Rivas said.
AMD has, in fact, blamed its channel shortfall for a recent revenue warning. Rivas said that an unexpected spike in demand for mobile processors along with Tier 1s gobbling up all the available Opterons hurt the supply of gear to the channel.
The channel excuse has rubbed us the wrong way because AMD has spent the last three years celebrating new programs for smaller partners, saying such efforts have been a huge success.
“It was a combination of a boom in our OEM customers and a mix issue that made us not look at our distribution perhaps as well as we could,” Rivas said. “And now we are (suffering) the consequences.”
Moving forward with Barcelona, AMD expects that it will have Opterons for all.
“We will have plenty of silicon” Rivas said. “We will make certain that everyone gets their fair share of the pie.”
Should Barcelona prove as successful as AMD hopes, then the company could be poised to gain server market share against Intel before beginning another game-changing phase.
AMD expects its ATI buy to pay serious data center dividends when the company shifts to 45nm chips in 2008. The chipmaker is looking to combine x86 processors with graphics engines to make products capable of cranking through scientific workloads with unprecedented performance. Such products will be complemented by third-party accelerators that plug right into Opteron sockets - an attack where AMD still enjoys a healthy lead over Intel.
So, come 2008, AMD should gain a shot at seizing the marketing high-ground once again rather than agonizing over missed opportunities. That is if all goes according to plan . . . ®