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AMD: 64-Bit Opteron Suited for Enterprise Servers

Tuesday Apr 22nd 2003 by Kevin Reichard

AMD is working to usher in the 64-bit era in server computing with the introduction of the Opteron CPU line, which promises to be a drop-in replacement for 32-bit processors while offering the potential for a new wave of 64-bit applications.

The future of 64-bit computing will enter a new phase with the release of the Opteron processor by AMD today.

Designed for computing-intensive server applications -- databases, applications servers, clustered high-performance computing -- the x86-64 chip will run at speeds of 1.4GHz, 1.6GHz and 1.8GHz. (AMD's other 64-bit chip, the desktop and notebook-oriented Athlon 64 chip codenamed Clawhammer, is scheduled for a September 2003 release.) The allure of the Opteron, according to AMD officials, is that corporations can transition to higher-performance 64-bit computing without the need to adopt an entirely new IT infrastructure: you can in theory just drop Opteron-based servers in the place of existing 32-bit servers and not miss a beat running 32-bit applications while preparing new 64-bit applications. Operating-system vendors like Microsoft and SuSE have announced support for the Opteron.

"Initially, it's the computing farm and the database servers that will see the first adoption of Opteron servers," says Kevin Graf, AMD Opteron Brand Manager. "This will be followed by transaction servers. Later on, you'll see messaging servers, content servers, and file/print move to 64-bit computing."

But, if Graf's predictions are correct, you won't see Opteron-based servers make inroads against RISC-based UNIX systems. "That will be the smallest share of our market, as that's an installed-based argument -- corporations are unlikely to put a lot of effort into upgrading existing RISC servers," Graf says. "For the transition to happen, it must require no effort whatsoever -- you buy a server and install it. That's not true of RISC systems." "It is time for all us in technology industry to change our ways," AMD CEO Hector Ruiz told a crowd of more 300 or so media and analysts gathered in New York City for the official product introduction. "New technology should not introduce new barriers, it should knock them down."

A Radical Conservative Design
The Opteron is radical -- it represents a totally new CPU architecture, system platform, and even microcode support all rolled into one. But the Opteron is conservative -- AMD's x86-64 architecture runs current 32-bit applications, and quickly, while giving forward-thinking buyers a transition path to 64-bit computing rather than the start-from-scratch approach of Intel's 64-bit Itanium family.

The 0.13-micron-process silicon-on-insulator Opteron -- a 90-nanometer-process successor will arrive in 2004 -- features two more pipeline stages than AMD's Athlon XP; instructions-per-clock-cycle boosters such as enhanced branch-prediction algorithms and larger translation look-aside buffers; support for the SSE2 streaming multimedia instructions that debuted in Intel's Pentium 4; and up to 1MB of Level 2 cache, all in a new, plus-sized processor die or 940-pin ceramic package. (The Athlon 64 will use a different, 754-pin socket.)

Both the Opteron and Athlon 64 boast 64-bit data and address paths and break through current 32-bit CPUs' 4GB memory addressing cap with 40-bit physical (up to 1 terabyte) and 48-bit virtual (up to 256 terabytes) memory addressing space. The Opteron also supports three HyperTransport links, providing up to 19.2GB/sec of bandwidth, versus the Athlon 64's single HyperTransport link for 6.4GB/sec of data transfer.

AMD says HyperTransport technology helps slash system bottlenecks, boost efficiency and increase system throughput by reducing the number of buses.

In terms of architectural changes, the most noticeable is the Opteron's integrated memory controller -- a 128-bit, dual-channel design supporting DDR266 and DDR333 SDRAM. Both the Opteron's memory controller and the Athlon 64's -- a single 72-bit channel -- take that job away from its traditional place in the system chipset's external Northbridge, greatly reducing the latency of read/write requests. This essentially controls the system at, or yields a front-side bus speed matching, the clock speed of the CPU.

With the new Opteron comes a gutsy new numbering scheme. AMD says the first digit in the model number communicates scalability, and represents the maximum number of processors supported by that model number:

For example:

  • AMD Opteron processor 100 Series (Example: Model 1XX) = 1-way server
  • AMD Opteron processor 200 Series (Model 2XX) = 2-way server
  • AMD Opteron processor 800 Series (Model 8XX) = supports up to 8-way servers

The second and third digits communicate relative performance within each product line. In this case an Opteron Model 244 will offer higher performance than an Opteron chip Model 242.

AMD started numbering the last two digits at 40. The company also says the Model numbers are not directly related to frequency.

It seems obvious that Intel will continue to hold the clock-speed advantage (its Xeon currently peaks at 3.06GHz), while AMD might well win the performance race -- it's shown estimated 32-bit benchmark results that show a 2.0GHz Opteron comfortably ahead of the 2.8GHz Xeon.

Partners Line Up
Already jumping on the bandwagon is Microsoft, which has pledged to support the architecture for its upcoming Windows Server 2003 release.

SuSE has promised a full 64-bit version of Linux as soon as the Opteron ships, with Red Hat committed to follow a bit later. IBM is promising new servers based on Opteron technology. Even Sun Microsystems is reportedly ready to use Opterons in its blade servers (define).

Sun's already has a 64-bit processor in use -- the UltraSPARC. Other 64-bit product brands already available include Hewlett-Packard's PA RISC and Alpha chips as well as and IBM's PowerPC processors.

Many smaller vendors have licensed designs from Newisys, an Austin, Texas, startup headed by former IBM and Dell execs that's offering a complete dual-processor 1U rackmount server, configurable with 512MB to 16GB of DDR333, paired Ultra320 SCSI or IDE hard drives, dual embedded Gigabit Ethernet adapters, and two PCI-X expansion slots.

No one denies that AMD faces an uphill fight against Intel, but there has never been so much buzz surrounding an AMD server processor, nor such promise for truly competitive performance and scalability -- both for entry-level and midrange servers, and for four- and eight-way systems in the $10,000-and-up segment that today's Athlon MP has had to cede to Intel's Xeon MP and Itanium 2.

This article contains material from Sharkey Extreme and internetnews.com.

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