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AMD updates the Opteron family

Advanced Micro Devices says its server chips consume less power. Intel has its challengers.

Advanced Micro Devices is throwing down the cool gauntlet.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company will release on Monday three new Opteron chips for servers--the Opteron 852, 252 and 152-- that sport a number of enhancements over existing models. The chips run at 2.6GHz, faster than the 2.4GHz chips AMD has been selling. The HyperTransport links, which shuttle data between the processors and other devices, have been sped up from 800MHz to 1GHz.

Just as important, the chips contain PowerNow with Optimized Power Management, which lets the operating system slow the processor's clock speed and consequently reduce power consumption, said Ben Williams, vice president of the server microprocessor business unit.

Hewlett-Packard will announce its plans to use the 252 in a blade server at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in Boston on Monday.

Though consumers often think of power consumption in the context of notebook or phone battery life, it's an increasingly important consideration for servers. Reducing power consumption reduces heat dissipation, which in turn lets administrators pack more servers into a data center. Hot servers can also malfunction, melt and contribute to sky-high electrical bills.

"Data center real estate is not getting bigger," Williams said. "Cooling costs and electricity are going up."

AMD has included PowerNow, adopted from its notebook chips, in server chips since the middle of last year, but the software to take advantage of it is only coming out now. Customers who bought PowerNow-enabled servers last year can update their software to activate the feature.

The three Opterons come with a thermal ceiling, or maximum power consumption rating, of 95 watts, Williams said. A comparable Xeon has a similar ceiling, but Opteron chips come with an integrated memory controller, something Xeon doesn't have. Memory controllers add about 20 watts, giving AMD an advantage, he said.

AMD will also come out with low-power versions of the three chips, with thermal ceilings of 55 watts and 30 watts, later in the year.

Intel also has a line of energy-efficient server chips. Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel will release the Irwindale version of Intel's Xeon, which doubles the amount of high-speed cache memory to 2MB compared with existing "Nocona" Xeon models, the sources said.

That the two companies compete in the server market is still a somewhat new phenomenon. AMD had a negligible presence in servers two years ago. Now it has about 6 percent of the market for server chips and counts Sun Microsystems and IBM as customers. Roughly 40 percent of the Global 400 has installed Opteron servers, Williams said.

The main difference between the three Opterons comes in what kind of servers they get used in. The 852 is made for servers with up to eight processors, while the 252 and 152 are designed for, respectively, servers with two processors and with one.

The new chips are the first Opterons made on the 90-nanometer process. Also arriving in these chips will be the SSE3 instructions Intel added to its chips last year to speed multimedia operations such as decoding video.