AMD finally starts shipping quad-core Opterons and publishes benchmark results
AMD has begun shipping quad core server processors for standard servers, in an effort to mend the firm's damaged image. A number of record benchmarks are expected to take everyone's mind off the enormous delays in delivery. AMD is currently undergoing a financial crisis. The firm is suffering from enormous losses from the takeover of graphics chip and chipset manufacturer ATI and from plummeting CPU sales prices. The company plans to publish its next quarterly results on 17th April, and they are expected to fall short of the already modest forecasts. Although billions in convertible loans were issued and Arab investors were won over, the firm has nonetheless announced it would be laying off some 10 per cent of its staff. Forbes reports that share prices look as though they may fall below $6 after Standard & Poor's and Moody's lowered their ratings for AMD stock. There has been speculation about a takeover for some time now, with such names as IBM, nVidia, and Samsung being mentioned; There has also been talk about the firm spinning off its chip production.
In 2006, AMD announced that it would be releasing its "Barcelona" quad core server processors with K10 cores for Opteron 2000 – servers and workstations that can house two CPUs – and Opteron 8000 – servers with four or more sockets – in mid-2007. When that deadline passed, there were so many rumours that AMD's CEO Ruiz felt compelled to provide explanations. Then, the "official" presentation in September 2007 turned into a PR disaster because AMD could only answer Intel's Xeons with relatively slow, power-hungry processors that also suffered from a rarely occurring flaw.
The setbacks at AMD frustrated crucial key customers, such as Cray and Sun Microsystems. Had it been finished on time, the Ranger HPC cluster would have come in at the top of the top 500 list for the autumn of 2007. By next June the new Cray XT4 should be reaching its full performance, so it looks like Sun will have to be satisfied finishing behind Cray. At the end of 2007, instead of celebrating new records, AMD could only sit back and watch the SPEC invalidate all of its published CPU2006 benchmarks. It was a great embarrassment, especially because AMD had published performance estimates for 2.6 GHz Barcelonas almost exactly a year ago. Since then, Intel has managed to launch the 45-nanometer processor generation despite a number of slight delays and now has a wide range of very efficient dual core and quad core processors for servers, desktop computers, and notebooks to show for itself.
The decision to stop shipping server processors because of flawed B2 stepping was financially painful because AMD's strategy to move out of the red was based on quad core Barcelonas. Now, AMD promises to keep all of its promises in order to regain trust.
The flaws in desktop PC processors Phenom X4 and X3 have now been remedied, and Opterons with B3 stepping are to be released afterwards. HP already announced that it now offers quad core Opteron machines, and AMD has now confirmed that these and servers from "other" system vendors (which AMD does not mention by name) are on sale. AMD's press release also does not state which CPU versions are available; HP is only selling "mainstream" models with 2.1 GHz (Opteron 2352), 2.2 GHz (Opteron 2354/8354) and 2.3 GHz (Opteron 2356/8356) and 75 watts ACP and 95 watts TDP. The SE Opterons also listed in AMD's price list with up to 2.5 GHz and 95/120 W are, along with High-Efficiency (HE) versions with 55/68 W, expected late in the second quarter of 2008 according to AMD's web site. By then, the "Budapest" quad core Opteron 1352, 1354, and 1356 for small servers with a single processor socket (AM2+) and HyperTransport 3.0 are to be released.
The Opteron machines that HP now offers might be able to top Intel's Xeons in a number of benchmarks, as the latest results for quad core servers in the TPC-C database benchmark published by SPEC CPU2006 show – fp_rate_2006 record values for servers with two or four quad cores – and – best value for the money. With fast floating-point performance, quad core Opterons are especially good for HPC clusters, which IBM's x3455 system focuses on, among others.
Because AMD has not changed the HyperTransport interface, the LGA1207/Socket F packaging, the power supply, or power consumption, a large number of computers currently running on dual core processors are expected to be easy to upgrade – provided a BIOS update is available. However, most of these processors will be sold in new machines; the upgrade market only plays a minor role and will not suffice to get AMD out of the red. Rather, AMD now needs server vendors to present as many new Opteron systems as possible.
Although AMD emphasises that quad core Opterons are expected to be very efficient, no SPECpower_ssj2008 efficiency benchmarks have been published for Barcelonas. AMD may hold back these figures until HE Opterons are ready. The only efficiency comparison of Opteron and Xeon systems is a controversial study conducted by Neal Nelsen Associates, in which the Intel system had 65 nm Xeons with older stepping and numerous fully buffered DIMMs, which is hard to compare with the more efficient 45 nm processors and the more thrifty FB-DIMMs and RDIMM chipset 5100 now available.
Had K10 processors been available as expected in mid-2007, they could have performed much better against Intel's 65 nm processors. But Intel's 45 nm products have improved greatly, so that AMD products will have a hard time keeping up in terms of performance and efficiency. AMD will still have to compete in terms of price – a crucial vulnerability that Intel can exploit. AMD's profits are dwindling because production costs for the monolithic Barcelona quad core with 283 square millimetres of silicon are much greater than the production costs for two of Intel's 107 square millimetre 45 nm quad cores.
At present, if AMD wants to offer attractive alternatives to Intel products, it can really only compete in the low cost computer market. Even if AMD wins the current competition proceedings against Intel, little will change; AMD is simply going to have to come up with much better performance in order to demand higher prices. AMD is therefore feverishly working on the launch of its own 45 nm technology, and the first 45 nm processors are expected to be released in the second half of 2008 and include larger caches, among other things. But by then, Intel plans to have launched the next round of even more powerful processors, such as the hex core server processor with codename Dunnington and the first specimen of the Nehalem generation.