AMD's Barcelona not a savior, yet

After a delay, Barcelona is here, but is it the clear winner AMD promised it would be? That's uncertain.

Advanced Micro Devices' quad-core Opteron processor is finally ready, but it's far from clear that this is the product that will help right AMD's ship.

AMD CEO Hector Ruiz will formally unveil the quad-core Opteron chip, previously code-named Barcelona, during an event in San Francisco Monday evening. Over a year in the making, and six months later than expected, Barcelona will be AMD's first chip with four processing cores.

Intel has had quad-core chips for servers since last November. The company chose an easier-to-implement method of putting four processing cores together by simply packaging two dual-core chips together. AMD took a different approach, integrating all four cores onto a single chip, with the belief that having all four cores together was a better fit for its architecture.

Will that insistence on a specific design goal make a difference? In some ways, it already has.

AMD has been forced to severely discount server processor prices this year to compete against Intel's quad-core chips, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. The company's sales force is in the middle of a reorganization following the departure of its top two sales executives. And because of Barcelona's delay, caused by technical glitches brought on by its challenging design, Ruiz will introduce Barcelona about 10 weeks before Intel's launches its second-generation quad-core server processor. The initial reviews have yet to surface, but it seems AMD might be able to stop the bleeding with Barcelona. The four major server vendors in the world--Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems--all plan to use Barcelona in their servers. And AMD thinks it can court new customers by emphasizing a different metric for measuring power consumption in data centers.

But AMD will not deliver--at least not yet--on promises made by Randy Allen, corporate vice president of AMD's server and workstation division, in January. "We expect across a wide variety of workloads for Barcelona to outperform Clovertown by 40 percent," Allen said. In May, Allen told reporters that Barcelona "will be the highest-performing x86 chip out there. It will blow away Clovertown."

There was no proof to those statements in the test results AMD distributed ahead of the Barcelona launch. In its briefing materials, the company touted only benchmark results that emphasized floating-point performance and memory bandwidth, which have always been strengths of the Opteron processor but do not cover the entire spectrum of the server market. And even among those benchmarks, Barcelona outperformed Intel's Xeon X5345 processor by more than 40 percent on only three criteria.

Barcelona will arrive in three different categories for high-performance, standard-issue, and energy-efficient server models. The high-performance models won't be available until the fourth quarter, but two standard and three energy efficient processors are now available for two-socket servers, the dominant segment of the market. Two processors for four-socket servers in both the standard and energy-efficient categories also will be available.

"ACP is meant to be the best real-world end-user estimate of what they are likely to see from the power consumption on the processor."
--Bruce Shaw, director of server and workstation marketing, AMD

In the standard category, AMD will launch processors at 2GHz and 1.9GHz, costing $389 and $319, respectively. The energy-efficient Opterons will launch at 1.9GHz, 1.8GHz and 1.7GHz.

That's slower than some had expected from Barcelona, and could have something to do with the company's earlier projections for Barcelona's performance against Intel. When "technical glitches" arise in processor production, they are often solved by running the chip at slower clock speeds until the problems can be ironed out.

AMD plans to launch 2.3GHz high-performance versions in the fourth quarter and will likely boost clock speed as momentum starts to grow behind the chip. The company demonstrated a 3GHz Barcelona chip at its analyst day in July. Clock speed is by no means the only measure of processor performance, but it is an important measure.

As a result, AMD will initially market its chips in part by using a new metric it developed for measuring the average power consumed by its processors. Power consumption has become a huge issue for companies looking to build large data centers. It's increasingly more expensive to provide electricity and cooling to data centers than it is to buy the servers themselves, forcing the chip and server industries to work on building more energy-efficient products.

But AMD customers who relied on the company's previous power metric of TDP (thermal design power) were putting too many resources into cooling and electrical supply, said Bruce Shaw, director of server and workstation marketing for AMD. That's because TDP was developed so server manufacturers would know much power the chip consumes in worst-case maximum-power situations that very rarely occur, and design their systems accordingly, he said.

So now AMD will advise customers of an Opteron processor's average CPU (central processing unit) power, or ACP. "ACP is meant to be the best real-world end-user estimate of what they are likely to see from the power consumption on the processor," Shaw said.

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