Hardware Today: The Chip Race Speeds Up

Monday Jan 23rd 2006 by Drew Robb

Intel may be holding the lead, but AMD continues to accelerate and the smaller players retain a presence.

Despite Intel's tenure of dominance in the x86 processor space, AMD has been steadily chipping away at its share for several years now. AMD came out of the gates well ahead of Intel in terms of 64-bit breakthroughs, dual-core chips, power consumption, and price. As a result, AMD's worldwide x86 server market share has doubled in less than a year. In addition, the latest Gartner numbers indicate AMD actually broke the 10 percent mark in server market share for the first time in its history.

"AMD is clearly ahead on performance and per-watt power advantages, which more and more customers are sensitive to," says Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "And for the first half of this year at least, AMD's lead in these categories will accelerate."

It's far from game over, however. Intel is still the clear market leader and has plenty in the pipeline that promises to make 2006 an exciting and more competitive year.

So where do the two chipmakers stand right now, and what we can expect from each later this year?

Opteron the Mighty

AMD offers a comprehensive and easily understandable line of server products based on its Opteron chip. All Opteron processors are capable of simultaneous 32- and 64-bit computing; scale from 1- to 8-way; and have 64 KB core L1 cache, 1 MB of core L2 cache, and run between 1.4 GHz and 2.8 GHz. AMD chips have also been shipping in both single-core and dual-core for almost a year.

They come in three flavors:

  • AMD Opteron 100 Series for 1-way servers/workstations
  • AMD Opteron 200 Series for 1- or 2-way servers/workstations
  • AMD Opteron 800 Series for up to 8-way servers

AMD was the first to introduce dual-core x86 products, and it remains well ahead in the race. The success of dual-core technology is apparent from its adoption curve in the enterprise. Most AMD chips sold are now dual core, and the company expects the overall percentage to continue climbing rapidly toward the 100-percent mark.

OEMs report similar figures.

"AMD is clearly ahead on performance and per-watt power advantages, which more and more customers are sensitive to." — Nathan Brookwood, Insight64 analyst

"The majority of our Opteron-based ProLiant server platforms are currently shipping with dual-core processors, and we expect that to continue accelerating rapidly," says HP product marketing manager, Christina Tiner.

HP recently published a Transaction Processing Performance Council (TPC) benchmark study on its ProLiant DL585 4-way server using AMD Opteron dual-core 880 chips. In price/performance results, the server beat IBM's 4-way xSeries 366 Dual-Core Xeon. While running the same IBM DB2 database, AMD achieved 7 percent faster performance at a quarter of the cost.

"With our dual-core, one can save more than $50,000 a year in energy in a data center of 500 2-way systems, or more than $100,000 with 500 4-way systems," says Pat Patla, director of server/workstation business at AMD.

Brookwood confirms this distinct power advantage. He notes that AMD chips run at about half the wattage of comparable Intel chips.

Intel Catch Up

The relative slowness of Intel in the 64-bit and dual-core space has been well documented. It took the company until well into 2005 to come out with a dual-core server chip — a low-end Pentium D. The Intel Pentium D is a 64-bit-capable single-processor server intended mainly for small businesses. Intel calls it the "30001 sequence."

But that doesn't mean the marathon is over. AMD preceded Intel by a long time in the 64-bit market. Yet Intel Xeon 64-bit chips now dominate, and despite AMD's performance and wattage advantages, two-thirds of the Top 500 supercomputers are Xeon-based, and two are in the Top 10 on the most recent list.

Intel has augmented this line with the Xeon "7000 sequence," its first dual-core processors for servers with four or more processors. It now uses a 90 nm wafer process, down from the previous 130 nm wafer. It supports Hyper-Threading (up to 128 threads in a 64-core platform) at speeds of up to 3.0 GHz for MPs and includes dual-independent front-side buses. Xeon-powered systems are targeted at both general infrastructure (e-mail, file/print, and Web hosting), and the high-performance computing (HPC) market. A 55-watt Xeon LV 2.80 processor used by IBM, HP, Dell, and others is also still available.

At the higher end, single-core 64-bit Intel Itanium 2 processors are available. These run at 1.5 to 1.6 GHz, have up to 6 MB of L3 cache, and a 400 MHz front-side bus. They are aimed mainly at three markets: HPC, RISC replacement, and mainframe replacement.

"Unlike RISC systems, Itanium allows a broad choice of operating systems, software and hardware," says Shannon Poulin, Intel server platforms group director of marketing.

>> The Less Prominent Players

First-Gen Problems

Late to the 64-bit party, Intel clearly made up the lost ground rapidly. But will the same thing happen in dual core? Maybe not. One of problems with Intel's first-generation dual-core processors was that when installed they were the equivalent of 2-way servers. Brookwood explains that they were little more than a combination of two single-core processors on a piece of silicon. The problem, however, was that they acted as though they weren't sitting next to each other; they used an external link to communicate over the front side bus. This process is less efficient, slower, and requires more power than true dual-core.

That's all changing, however, with the newest batch of Xeons. The impending release of the dual-core processor "5000 sequence," codenamed Dempsey, is a good example. These second-generation dual-core chips support EM64T and Hyper-Threading; they run at 2.80 GHz, have 2 MB of Level 2 cache per core, a new Intel E7520 chipset, and built-in virtualization technology. They are aimed primarily at the Web, infrastructure, and e-mail server audience. Intel also has a 32-bit Xeon dual-core processor on the way that will deliver improved performance per watt. Codenamed "Sossaman," it is based on its mobile core and targeted at low-power and thermal environments, such as blades.

By mid-2006, watch for a new Itanium-2 dual-core processor called the "9000 sequence" (codenamed "Montecito"). This is just one of more than a dozen dual-core and multi-core projects Intel currently has in development. As a result, the vast majority of Intel chips will be fully dual-core by year end.

The improvement between the first generation and the second generation is evident in OEM uptake. HP remained cool to the first offerings, but it is introducing servers based on the latest Intel dual-core processors, such as the ProLiant DL320 G4, DL360 G4p, DL380 G4 SAS, ML370 G4, and BL20p G3 Blade.

Two-Horse Race

A year ago, some hoped that other chipmakers, such as Transmeta or VIA, might become serious contenders. It now appears that the server market will remain firmly a two-horse race for some time to come.

And what does the future hold?

Intel has big plans. By the end of the year, it intends to have 85 percent of its server processors dual-core capable. Instead of shrinking the gap, however, Brookwood believes AMD's performance/price lead might widen with the introduction of Dempsey. He explains that an already power-hungry Intel chip design employs a memory architecture that actually consumes more power (36 more watts from six memory modules). Later in the year, Intel will cut processor power consumption to 90 watts. Although this is still not on par with AMD, the memory design pushes the total wattage up to about 126 watts.

"Intel is taking steps to narrow the performance gap per watt, but whether they'll catch up to AMD is hard to say, if they continue using this memory architecture," says Brookwood. "Intel probably won't have onboard memory controllers until 2008 or 2009."

He predicts neither party will deliver quad-core chips until 2007, with AMD once again likely to be the first guest to arrive.

"We believe the server market will eventually be made up solely of dual-core and multi-core processors," says Patla. "We plan to continue with dual-core through 2006, and you can expect multi-core (such as quad-core) from us in 2007."

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