AMD seeks server rebound with Barcelona

AMD will launch its Barcelona quad-core Opteron chip on Monday, hoping to regain momentum in the server market.

Advanced Micro Devices hopes to seize a larger share of the server chip market from its rival Intel this week when it launches the Barcelona quad-core processor.

AMD has been shipping the Quad-Core AMD Opteron chip to server vendors throughout August, but will use its news conference in San Francisco to publicly announce those partnerships as well as prices and benchmark test results.

The company plans to launch a 1.9GHz, 68-watt Barcelona chip that focuses on power efficiency, and a 2.0GHz, 95-watt version that focuses on price/performance, said Randy Allen, AMD's corporate vice president for the server and workstation division. In the fourth quarter, the company will follow that with a 2.3 GHz, 120-watt version for high-performance applications, and higher clock speeds for the first two chips.

There is a lot at stake. After launching the original Opteron chip in 2003, the company enjoyed brisk demand as customers applauded the power-efficient performance of that 130-nanometer design process chip. But Intel soon got back in the fight, as both companies built smaller, faster components, shrinking their chip scales to 90nm and adding a second core.

AMD has endured disappointing results lately, posting losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars for recent quarters and focusing its attention on a merger with graphics chip maker ATI Technology. At the same time, Intel claimed bragging rights to beating AMD to quad-core architecture and 65nm scale chips with its Clovertown server chip. Intel is also preparing to launch an even smaller-featured design in the fourth quarter with its 45nm Penryn chip.

AMD says Barcelona is the answer to the Intel challenge. The chip is designed with all four cores on a single die, as opposed to Intel's design of joining two dual-core Woodcrest Xeon chips, Allen said.

Even more important, AMD upgraded each core from 64-bit floating point performance to 128-bit, and retained its Direct Connect architecture and on-chip memory controller to avoid bottlenecks in data flow, he said.

Thanks to that design, the new chip will provide better performance while using the same amount of power, he said. A customer could upgrade a Hewlett-Packard Co. ProLiant DL 385 server from AMD's dual-core to quad-core Opteron and gain faster operation with the same power and cooling demands.

"Clovertown will look very anemic, especially as we bring out new frequencies. Customers really don't buy nanometers. What they care about is performance and benchmarking," said Allen. "That Direct Connect architecture is very helpful with virtualization, running multiple OSes and other applications pulling more data than can be held in on-chip memory."

Despite those advantages, AMD has missed out on a spike in market demand driven by a need to upgrade to servers capable of performing virtualization, one analyst said.

"A lot of people view this as six months late or more," said Doug Freedman, managing director for research at American Technology Research. "Expectations got ahead of themselves, and some people viewed this as a potential savior for AMD after their server share topped out at the end of last year, going up against Intel's dual-die quad-core. Now the feeling is this launch isn't robust enough in terms of samples shipped, design wins and the complete food chain."

To recover, AMD will have to quickly increase its production and release faster versions of Barcelona to improve the chip's availability for a range of applications, Freedman said.

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Ben Ames

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