AMD seeks redemption with 'Shanghai' chip

Advanced Micro Devices looks to gain back server business with the its first 45-nanometer processor.

Let bygones be bygones. That's what Advanced Micro Devices is hoping for with the roll-out of its first 45-nanometer processor Thursday.

(AMD also announced its upcoming 45-nanometer "Phenom II X4" desktop technology. See below.)

The No. 2 PC processor supplier will make the case that Shanghai is not Barcelona. The latter chip--AMD's first quad-core processor--was rolled out in September 2007 to great fanfare but then faced prolonged delays. This gave Intel an opportunity to regain ground it had lost to AMD in the server chip market. (AMD lost more than five percentage points to Intel in the server market during the third quarter of this year, according to various reports.)

AMD Shanghai die
AMD Shanghai die

"Barcelona was obviously a pretty rough start for them. And that does not appear to be the case for Shanghai," said Dean McCarron, the principal and founder of Mercury Research, a company that tracks chip market movements. "One of the big distinctions was they wanted to be absolutely sure that Shanghai was ready to go."

Shanghai is not a new architecture but essentially a refresh of AMD's Barcelona Opteron chip. AMD claims Shanghai is 35 percent faster than Barcelona without using more energy. The chip is being built on 45-nanometer process technology, while Barcelona was a 65-nanometer part. Typically, the smaller the geometries, the faster and more power efficient the processor.

Major customers are brimming with accolades for Shanghai. "We've been very pleased. Thrilled with their execution," said with Paul Gottsegen, vice president of Industry Standard Servers, HP, in an interview.

"We'll have products that will be shipping just after launch. We had high performance expectations for the product and it exceeded our expectations," he said. "We're going to put Shanghai across the meat of our product line. You'll see six different rack servers, three different blades, all up and down parts of our product line."

And HP likes the fact that Shanghai is more power efficient, a critical metric for many server applications. "We're seeing a significantly higher performance-per-watt over previous-generation AMD," Gottsegen said.

HP would not comment on AMD's checkered quad-core past. In response to a question about drawing a comparison with AMD's Barcelona launch last September and Shanghai, Gottsegen would not comment. "This is their Shanghai launch. I want to focus on Shanghai," he said.

Cray is also expected to use Shanghai in its supercomputers, according to AMD.

Both HP and Dell are targeting Shanghai processors specifically for virtualization, which allows a data center to reduce the number of physical servers. Shanghai has a silicon "assist" that facilitates virtualization.

Praise from vendors doesn't necessarily translate into market success, however. Especially when the market is going south in a hurry. "We have a demand-falling-off-the-cliff scenario," said Ashok Kumar, an analyst at investment bank Collins Stewart.

"Shanghai, which in a normal environment may have had a window of opportunity, it's not likely to do so today," Kumar said. "By the time demand recovers in the second half of next year, Intel will be fielding their (next-generation) Nehalem product," Kumar added, referring to Intel's server version of the Nehalem processor.

Shanghai Opteron processors are available immediately, the company said. The 75-watt versions of the processor range from 2.3GHz to 2.7GHz in clock speed. Enhanced Quad-Core AMD Opteron HE (55-watt) and SE (105-watt) processors are planned for the first quarter of 2009, AMD said.

Shanghai technology ahead of Intel

Much of Shanghai's raw technology is a generation ahead of Intel. In a posting at EE Times, Don Scansen, a semiconductor technology analyst at Semiconductor Insights, said that many of the features that Intel is touting as new are not new to AMD and were initially introduced in AMD's Barcelona processor.

"Intel's Nehalem is due out soon, but many of the features of what has widely been touted as a 'new' architecture are only new to Intel," he writes.

"There is no question that Intel is at the cutting edge of process (manufacturing) technology, but that's not true for architecture. Intel probably decided it made more sense to introduce a highly integrated, quad-core design on 45nm rather than 65nm just to keep the chip size down. Whatever the reasons, the introduction of Intel's Nehalem architecture will come more than a year later than AMD's Barcelona."

Scansen says that, among other things, AMD has reduced the "die footprint" (chip size) by more than 10 percent, despite doubling the total cache memory from 4MB to 8MB.

Upcoming 45nm desktop processors

AMD plans to bring Shanghai 45nm processor technology to the desktop PC market in Q1 2009 with a platform codenamed "Dragon."

"This platform will be the second-generation AMD performance desktop platform, featuring all next-generation components in comparison to the first-generation AMD 'Spider' platform released in 2008," AMD said in a statement.

The Dragon platform will combine 45nm AMD Phenom II X4 quad-core processors with AMD 700 Series chipsets and ATI Radeon HD 4000 series graphics.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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