AMD battles for server CPU cred

Historically, AMD processors have been a force to be reckoned with in data centers. But some IT managers have questioned the platform’s longevity.

Not long ago, when it came to server processors, AMD was a force to be reckoned with in the data center. But the chipmaker continues to lose market share, and IT managers are split on whether the company’s Opteron line is a good bet for their server platforms going forward.

Then, news last month that Oracle Corp. is in the market for a chip manufacturer to bolster its server hardware division only added uncertainty and doubt about the prospects for Advanced Micro Devices Inc. server processor supplier. Analysts speculate that Oracle could purchase AMD, IBM’s chip division, or Nvidia.

Certainly, AMD’s server business has seen better days. At its peak – the second quarter of 2006 -- AMD had 25.9% of the worldwide market for server processors, according to IDC. For the most recent quarter, AMD had 6.5% market share, down from 10.1% the year before.

But that dropoff has more to do with the lag between older processor models (code-named “Shanghai,” and “Istanbul”) and the new “Magny Cours” platform, said Shane Rau, IDC research director for computing, networking and storage semiconductors. “I expect that AMD will pick up market share in Q3 2010 based on shipments from OEMs like Dell,” Rau said in an email to

Pining for Nehalem
How much share AMD can acquire remains to be seen, and longtime AMD shops have eyed the exits.

In 2006, Boston Market Crop. began buying AMD-based Hewlett-Packard Co. servers. Back then, AMD performance was on par with Intel’s, and the chips got good reviews. “It was a matter of personal preference,” said Eric Siebert, a system administrator at the firm.

Intel is always first to market, and AMD is always playing catch-up.

Eric Siebert, system administrator, Boston Market Corp.

Now, Intel has forged ahead in support for advanced features that offload virtualization processing from the VMware hypervisor to the chip. Examples include Intel’s Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O (VT-d) and Trusted Execution Technology (TXT).

AMD chips still perform well, but “Intel is always first to market, and AMD is always playing catch-up,” Siebert said. While Boston Market doesn’t need Intel’s advanced features today, “I’d like to have them just in case.”

Further, Siebert said that server OEMs have fewer AMD-based systems for sale, and the systems they do have are often on back order. Siebert said he has been waiting for more than a month for HP to ship a ProLiant DL385 G6 server. While not the latest-and-greatest G7 model, the four-processor box is nevertheless mainstream and should not be hard to get. “It’s seems like you just have more flexibility and options with Intel,” he said.

But as strongly as Intel beckons, a wholesale switch from AMD is not on the horizon. Boston Market runs VMware on all its servers, and VMware’s VMotion live migration feature requires servers in the cluster to use the same processor family in order to work. “Once you make a commitment, you’re pretty much stuck unless you replace everything all at once,” he said.

AMD performance, cost advantages
Other server buyers see things very differently.

“AMD servers are still about 30% less expensive than the Intel equivalents, and they've been consistently more upgrade-friendly because of longer socket-compatibility cycles,” wrote Matt Lavallee, a director of technology at MLS Property Information Network in Shrewsbury, Mass., in an email to

The company deploys AMD Opterons in four- and eight-way HP ProLiant DL585s, which it upgrades yearly with the latest and greatest AMD chips. “We do this in particular with our eight-way boxes, where there is so much investment in the total asset and [where] the upgrade is one-tenth the cost of replacing the server for the new speed,” Lavallee said.

There is absolutely no concern on our side about buying AMD.

Stuart Radnidge, virtualization architect, large financial services firm

The Opterons also allow for the use of unbuffered dual inline memory modules (DIMMs), Lavallee pointed out, for lower memory costs compared with Intel-based systems.

And for high-performance computing (HPC) systems, AMD’s compute density and power efficiency continues to win customers. For example, Purdue University’s latest 1,110-core “Rothman” compute cluster is based on running quad-processor six-core HP DL165s, delivering 24 cores in a 1U box.

Indeed, when it comes to sheer core count, AMD is ahead of Intel. The AMD Opteron 6100 (Magny-Cours) comes in either eight- or 12-core configurations, compared with six or eight on the latest Intel Xeon 7500s (Nehalem-EX). In 2011 the next-generation Opteron code-named “Interlagos” will further up the core ante with 12- and 16-core versions, but the next Intel microprocessor family “Sandy-Bridge” is not expected to increase its core-count.

It’s not just number of cores, but how they are constructed, that matters, said Burke Banda, AMD business development manager. The cores in AMD Opterons are “real” physical cores, whereas Intel uses virtual cores, or hyperthreading. “That’s the big one where we diverge in terms of philosophy. We fundamentally believe you get better performance with physical cores,” he said.

AMD believes that’s especially true in CPU-intensive high-performance computing (HPC) environments. “With hyperthreading, you’re using off-cycles of other threads,” Banda said. With HPC, “it’s hard to use hyper-threading with off-cycles because there are no extra cycles.”

Furthermore, each AMD Opteron supports up to four memory channels, compared with three for Intel Xeons. Given that each memory channel can attach to three DIMMs apiece, a single four-processor system can be equipped with up to 48 DIMMs, compared with 36 for a comparable Intel system.

Before Magny-Cours, AMD offered two memory channels per processor, limiting how many DIMMs could be attached. “Before, we had 12 cores but only two memory channels, and you wouldn’t have the bandwidth you needed,” Banda said. Now, with four memory channels, “we can build a balanced box.”

But while AMD chips are a good fit for HPC applications, today’s Intel Nehalems tend to hold the advantage when it comes to enterprise applications, said Nathan Brookwood, a principal analyst at Insight 64.

“What Nehalem can do with four cores,AMD can do with six,” he said. But with Interlagos, Brookwood expects to see a performance increase of at least 30%, which will bring Opteron line back in line with – or possibly ahead of – the Intel platform.

Safety in numbers
Whether AMD’s next platform will live up to expectations remains to be seen, but until then, large AMD shops are unfazed by the company’s dwindling market share. Stuart Radnidge, a virtualization architect at a large multinational financial services company, said his firm standardized on AMD five years ago, across thousands of servers. “There is absolutely no concern on our side about buying AMD in terms of risk of them going under or something,” Radnidge said.

AMD has been great …  in providing competition for Intel.

Bob Plankers, virtualization architect, large midwestern university

That said, the firm recently started to deploy Intel Nehalem for workloads with a specific requirement for single-thread performance, he said, mainly trading-related apps. “We still haven't made a call on the future,” he added.

Even die-hard Intel shops have an earnest desire for AMD to do well if only to keep Intel on its toes and competitive.

Bob Plankers is a virtualization architect at a large midwestern university and has run an Intel shop for years, despite repeated attempts at trying out AMD servers. “I say, run whatever works for you, but every piece of hardware I’ve had from them has had some sort of Achilles’ heel,” Plankers said.

That said, “AMD has been great ... in providing competition for Intel,” he added. With no competition during the late 1990s, Intel had little motivation to innovate or lower prices, Plankers said. “But then AMD came along and within a year we went from Intel's 200 MHz CPUs to 1 GHz CPUs, at significantly lower prices.”

That’s the way it should be, said Jonathan Eunice, a principal IT adviser at Illuminata Inc. “Enterprises like to maintain at least two different strategic suppliers -- usually, exactly two -- to spur price or feature competition, and as a hedge against supplier delays or problems,” he said. Today, Intel Nehalem is “rocking and rolling,” he said, but “the nature of processor rollouts is that it’s a leapfrog game.”


Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at [email protected], or follow @aebarrett on twitter.



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