AMD is marshaling its Bulldozers in the war of the server chips.
On Monday, the chip designer released both 8- and 16-core server processors based on its modular “Bulldozer” architecture — the Opteron 4200 and 6200 — in a bid to remain relevant in the market for chips that power cloud services, corporate data centers, and supercomputers. The market is dominated by arch-rival Intel, and there’s fresh competition from the makers of low-power embedded processors, including ARM chips.
The new chips arrive after the company sliced its workforce by 11 percent, saying it needed to cut costs in order to keep pace with rivals like Intel. With the chips, the company is looking to improve on its small and eroding share of the server market. At the end of the third quarter this year, Intel’s share of the PC server processor market stood at 95.1%, while AMD topped out at 4.9%, according to IDC.
AMD is targeting the processors at the three main segments of the server market: corporate data centers using virtualization technology, web-scale data centers supporting public and private clouds, and high-performance computing. “You’ve got to be, to some degree, everything to everyone,” said John Fruehe, director of product marketing for AMD’s server products.
The Opteron 6200 ups the number of cores in an x86 server processor to 16, though it’s hard to make a direct comparison to processors with traditional cores. Each Bulldozer module consists of a pair of integer units and a floating point unit that share resources, including cache. Each integer unit has four pipelines, and each floating-point unit has two floating-point processors. Eight modules yields a processor with 16 cores. In traditional multi-core processors, each integer unit has its own set of resources.
AMD claims an 84 percent performance advantage over Intel’s comparable Xeon processor. Fruehe acknowledged that performance comparisons between the top AMD and Intel processors aren’t always relevant to the average customer, who typically buys a mid-performance processor. “Where customers are actually spending their money, we’re able to deliver significantly more performance,” he said.
Translating benchmark performance figures to real-world results is an uncertain undertaking in any case. The new processors will perform well for certain applications, and the market size of those applications will determine the success of the product line, said Sergis Mushell, a principal research analyst with Gartner. The market size will only become clear when the processors are “out in the marketplace and people are running their workloads,” he said.
The processor has a couple of power-related features that should at least get a look from always-power-conscious data center operators and supercomputer makers. One is a mode where modules on the processor power down if they’ve been idle for a certain number of cycles. “We can get up to 46% lower power at idle,” said Fruehe.
The other is a way to set the processor’s maximum power consumption level in fine-grained increments, down to single watts. This gives data center operators the flexibility to increase the number of servers per rack within a given power budget, said Fruehe.
The high-performance computing community has shown the strongest initial interest in the new Opteron processors, said Fruehe. Supercomputer maker Cray today announced that it has been awarded the contract to build the Blue Waters petascale supercomputer for the National Science Foundation, and it will build the supercomputer using Opteron 6200 processors. The project had originally been awarded to IBM, but picked withdrew from the project.
By AMD’s own reckoning, high-performance computing is only about 10 per cent of the market for server processors. Traction in the cloud and corporate data centers will probably be a better measure of Bulldozer’s server success.
AMD recognizes that this is a make-or-break period for the company, Gartner’s Mushell said. “So it looks very hopeful from a high-level perspective that they’re very committed to make these products successful,” he said.
So long as the Opteron processors are competitive AMD is likely to have a shot at relevancy, if for no other reason than the industry’s need to keep Intel honest. “People are looking to have at least a second choice, especially [because] x86 is the dominant platform,” said Mushell.