AMD Gears Up For Blade Battle

AMD is planning a full-scale assault on chipmaking rival Intel’s chunk of the burgeoning market for blade servers.

During a conference call with Merrill Lynch semiconductor analyst Joseph Osha, Marty Seyer, general manager of AMD’s Commercial Business Unit, said sales of blade servers will blossom 40 percent over the next four years.

The estimate, from research firm IDC, is further vindication that blades offer enterprises a great option to consolidate servers, cut thermal consumption, and provide greater efficiency.

But major blade deployment has been stymied by the lack of increased performance and density, related to thermal issues Intel’s architecture has failed to solve, he said.

“We think there is an opportunity, if done correctly, for a total change in the enterprise IT implementations here and we’re going to be one of the main drivers for that because of our superior architecture,” Seyer said. “We believe there is an opportunity for AMD64 architecture to be the de facto architecture for blades.”

Seyer said one of the technological limitations of Intel’s server chip architecture involves the front-side bus memory controller, which he said becomes a bottleneck as users add more compute capabilities. It also adds delays and latencies because you have to go out of the CPU to access memory and go back into the CPU to crunch numbers or whatever job the processor has waiting.

The point is that every increasing performance, every increasing frequency has a bottleneck. As users get into dual-core and they increase the thermal density of the wattage, the bottleneck and power problem are compounded.

Seyer said AMD’s engineers skipped the front-side bus with its Opteron chipset, implementing an architecture that allows for better scale.

Lack of capacity remains a huge barrier to adoption with blades, with chassis only being half filled because of the limited dissipation of heat in the smaller form factors.

He said AMD has a technology called PowerNow, which is intended to address the thermal problem most blade implementations are facing. PowerNow throttles the CPU, translating directly to savings of energy.

He also said virtualization will find its way into blades, helping IT managers solve the underutilization issue in servers. AMD has added software-inspired features in AMD64 that enable virtualization to boost server utilization.

Called Pacifica, the technology is expected to appear in mid-2006.

Turning to a popular subject in computing, Seyer noted that blade architectures have inherent multi-core capability.

“If you can deliver next-generation performance in the same thermal envelope, then you’ve got an incredible performance-per-watt, which is what blades are all about,” Seyer said. “Hopefully, you can, with multi-core, improve the density inside the typical IT infrastructure.”

“More compute engines per square foot is what you’re after here. Multi-core is going to provide that capability. We see nothing but upside opportunity for the blade market with a nicely designed multi-core capability.”

He claimed AMD’s Opteron has a 31 percent performance advantage over Intel’s dual-core technology.

Seyer admitted AMD’s blade market share is “a small percentage” compared to Intel, which saw its chips launch in the first blades from HP and IBM years ago. But in fairness, Opteron-based blades have only been on the market for six months and HP, IBM, Egenera and Fujitsu Siemens have all embraced the AMD architecture.

According to Mercury Research, AMD is making strides in the overall chip, as its processor share rose 1.6 points from 16.2 to 17.8 percent in the third quarter at the expense of Intel.

AMD needs to continue convince the server vendors and end users that its Opteron architecture is superior in order to gain share. Already, Intel is gearing up its latest dual-core Xeon server chips, which began shipping this week. Intel had planned to release the dual-core, hyper-threaded processors for servers with four or more processors, code-named Paxville, by October of 2006. The stepped-up timing represents Intel’s competitive response to AMD.

As previously reported, AMD delivered the first dual-core x86 processor for servers in April. Analysts believe dual-core Opteron systems still compare favorably to Paxville, but Intel has closed the gap considerably and may be in a stronger position going forward, especially when it switches to [more cost-effective] 65 nanometer manufacturing.

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