AMD tries to draw Intel into chip battle

Intel refuses to bite, saying it knows its customers very well

Advanced Micro Devices is offering prizes to drum up more interest ahead of this month's launch of its 12-core server chip, as rival Intel also has server-chip launch plans.

AMD will award prizes valued at US$8,189 to the person who best describes in an essay, video or blog post how to use 48 cores in a server, according to a blog entry by John Fruehe, director of product marketing for servers and workstations products at AMD. The prizes are a copy of Windows Server 2008 and four Opteron 12-core processors running at 2.2 GHz, which adds up to 48 cores in a four-socket server.

AMD is already shipping Magny-Cours processors, which will be called Opteron 6100 after they officially launch, to manufacturers. The server chips will be officially announced and available through retail channels later this month.

In the blog entry, Fruehe said the Magny-Cours chip would offer more memory channels than Intel's upcoming Westmere-EP server products. Intel said it will release its Westmere-EP server processors, which will include up to six cores, and the eight-core Nehalem-EX server processor by the end of this month. Intel will launch the chips under the Xeon product line.

AMD's chip will contain the highest number of cores in an x86 server processor, analysts said. The contest may be a way for AMD to showcase the number of cores in comparison to Intel chips to capture the performance crown, analysts said.

Intel and AMD reverted to adding cores to boost chip performance earlier in the decade, as cranking up clock speed led to excessive heat dissipation and power consumption. Adding cores to server chips continues, even though the battle has cooled off at four cores for consumer desktop and laptop processors, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

Servers manufacturers are always looking to boost performance, and thousands of cores are being added to supercomputers in the high-performance computing space to do complex math calculations, McCarron said.

AMD's 12-core chip will provide good boost in performance over Intel's Westmere-EP chips as it has more computing resources at work, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. However, the real battle will be between AMD's 12-core Magny-Cours and Intel's eight-core Nehalem-EX chip, which are both targeted at four-socket servers.

However, Intel insisted it won't launch a competition or offer prizes to drum up attention behind its chips.

"We don't need a contest to figure out what our customers are going to do with our products," said Shannon Poulin, Xeon platform director at Intel.

Users care less about cores than they do about price and performance-per-watt, Poulin said. An excessive number of cores could add to the software licensing costs for customers, Poulin said.

However, analysts agreed that beyond the number of cores, factors such as on-chip cache, RAM and memory bandwidth help improve system performance. Intel is putting four memory channels in the Nehalem-EX chips, which puts it on par with AMD's Magny-Cours chip.

For most enterprise applications, memory throughput is a significant contributor to performance, McCarron said. For example, memory bandwidth matters for large databases as they try to get data to the RAM as quickly as possible.

Poulin also said that Intel holds a manufacturing advantage that allows it to put more on-chip cache in its microprocessors than its competitors, while delivering power savings, performance and better prices than its earlier chips. However, AMD's Fruehe argued that "customers don't buy nanometers, they buy products."

Transistor size is one attribute of the processor, but the architecture behind it is just as critical, Fruehe said. AMD's chips will size up well on power consumption and performance compared to Intel's upcoming server chips, Fruehe said.

Intel's Nehalem-EX holds an architectural advantage with new features like error correction, but AMD may offer better bang-for-the-buck with its Magny-Cours chips, especially as users migrate from two-socket to four-socket servers, analyst Brookwood said.

"AMD is going to change the economics as they bring out the new systems," Brookwood said. Intel may charge a premium for the Nehalem-EX chips, which could go into new markets traditionally dominated by chips based on the RISC (reduced instruction set computer) architecture, like IBM's Power and Sun's Sparc chips, he said.

"It's going to be an interesting year in the x86 server market. Both companies are executing well." Brookwood said.

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