AMD Unveils New 8- And 16-core Server Processors
November 15, 2011

AMD Unveils New 8- And 16-core Server Processors

Advanced Micro Designs (AMD) on Monday unleashed its highly anticipated 8- and 16-core server processors based on AMD℠s new chip design called Bulldozer, which provides bandwidth and performance improvements while saving on power.

Zurich, the company´s next-gen Opteron 3000 server, and Interlagos, their Opteron 6200 server, are important additions to the server market. However, AMD is focusing most of its attention on Interlagos, which will directly compete against Intel´s high-end E5600 series servers.

AMD touted that its Opteron 6276 server outperforms Intel E5640 by as much as 84 percent. The Opteron 6200 series chips are also 25 to 30 percent faster than their predecessors (the 12-core Opteron 6100 chips), said John Fruehe, director of product marketing at AMD.

He acknowledged that performance comparisons between the top AMD and Intel processors aren´t always relevant to the average customer, who typically buys a mid-performance processor. “Where customers are actually spending their money, we´re able to deliver significantly more performance,” said Fruehe.

“When you drive past a car dealership, you´ll always see the fancy red sports car prominently displayed,” Fruehe wrote in a blog post. “It draws people in — it´s what the car dealers purposely put there for you to view and think about. But what vehicle do people drive out of the dealership parking lot with? Well, even in a tech-savvy city like Austin, I see a lot more Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys on the road than bright red sports cars. Why? While the Porsche is a faster car, the reality that we all face is that most people want to get the most for their money. If you take a look, server buyers are no different.”

The chips are currently being shipped to computer manufacturers and will soon be available in a new line of Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Cray and Acer computers, according to Fruehe. The company is racing to remain relevant in the market for chips that power cloud services, data centers, and supercomputers. The market is currently dominated by Intel, and there is also competition from ARM, which makes low-power embedded processors.

The chips arrived after a brief delay and an 11 percent cutback in the company´s workforce. The company said it needed to cut costs in order to keep pace with its competitors. AMD is hoping the new servers will help it regain some shares in the server market. At the end of the third quarter this year AMD only carried a 4.9 percent market share, compared to Intel with 95.1 percent, according to analyst firm IDC.

AMD is targeting three main segments of the server market with its chips: corporate data centers, web-scale data centers, and high-performance computing. “You´ve got to be, to some degree, everything to everyone,” said Fruehe.

AMD´s five high-end chips (6262 HE, 6272, 6274, 6276 and 6282 SE) run at clock speeds between 1.6GHz and 2.6GHz, and are priced between $523 and $1,019. They draw between 85 and 140 watts of power and will plug into existing server sockets to replace older 12-core chips.

“The 6200 is targeted at really scalable applications, things that have a lot of threads,” such as databases, cloud and high-performance computing, Fruehe said.

The chips are for heavily threaded and virtualized server environments, said Fruehe. Linux and Microsoft's Windows Server 2008 operating systems are tuned to take advantage of 16 cores, and more instances of virtual machines can be created to handle transactions, he added.

The Bulldozer architecture mixes the CPU with integer units and a shared floating point unit so more operations can be executed per clock cycle while drawing lower power. Other chip improvements include Turbo Core technology, which can increase clock speed by up to 500MHz across all cores and up to 1GHz on some cores depending on the performance required.

The chips also have a few power-related features that should appease power-conscious data center operators and supercomputer makers. One is a mode where modules on the processor power down if they have been idle for a certain number of cycles. “We can get up to 46 percent lower power at idle,” said Fruehe.

The other is a way to set the processor´s maximum power consumption level in fine-grained increments, down to single watts. This gives data center operators the flexibility to increase the number of servers per rack within a given power budget, he added.

Opteron´s launch comes ahead of the launch of Intel´s Xeon E5 server processors, which are in production and should reach servers in the first half of 2012.

AMD also announced the launch of Opteron 4200 chips, which will come with between six and eight cores. The chips operate at clock speeds between 1.6GHz and 3.0GHz, and are priced between $125 and $377.

Although all three Opteron chipsets series (3000, 4200, 6200) are based on AMD´s Bulldozer core, the 4200 and 6200 share some components across the two cores, particularly fetch and decode units, L2 memory cache, and a floating point scheduler, but each core in a module has its own L1 cache and integer unit scheduler. Each core also has just one thread, but, by sharing some resources with another core, those threads come less expensively than they would if each Bulldozer core was an entirely stand-alone unit.

The 4200 processors are built for dense server environments with low-power consumption, said Fruehe. The chips draw between 35 watts and 95 watts of power, and as low as 4.3 watts per core.

There is growing interest in low-power ARM processors  as server makers deliver systems that help companies cut electric bills. But Fruehe said AMD´s processors have a thing or two over ARM processors, which lack server features like larger memory addressability and 64-bit capabilities.

“When you look at some of the things like ARM, good technology, but when you look at the server markets and the needs ... they are really only hitting a small part of the market way down at the bottom where some of these things don´t matter,” Fruehe said.

“There´s no way that a 1.4GHz ARM processor is going to be able to perform at the same level as an x86 processor,” said Fruehe.

High-performance computing is only about 10 percent of the market for server processors, AMD believes. Traction in the cloud and corporate data centers will probably be a better measure of Bulldozer´s server success.

AMD recognizes that this is a make-or-break period for the company, Sergis Mushell, a principal research analyst with Gartner, told Wired. “So it looks very hopeful from a high-level perspective that they´re very committed to make these products successful.”

So long as the Opteron processors are competitive AMD is likely to have a shot at relevancy, if for no other reason than the industry´s need to keep Intel honest. “People are looking to have at least a second choice, especially [because] x86 is the dominant platform,” said Mushell.

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