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Intel, AMD vie for server attention

Dueling chipmakers try to steer attention to tomorrow's battleground for quad-core server processors.

SAN FRANCISCO--Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, already fighting over today's customers, held simultaneous meetings Wednesday to try to turn attention to the server processors that will be on tomorrow's battleground.

For AMD, the focus is on "Barcelona," the company's first quad-core Opteron processor due to ship later this year. For Intel, it's "Clovertown," a quad-core Xeon already on the market. AMD outgunned Intel with its Opteron processor launch in 2004, but Intel is back in the fray with its newest chips.

Intel plans two new Clovertown models at either end of the power consumption spectrum, said Tom Kilroy, a co-general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group. Next week, Intel will release a model that consumes 50 watts maximum compared with today's 80-watt models. And for customers who want maximum performance but aren't as concerned about power consumption, the company will release a 3GHz model later this year, a notch faster than today's 2.66GHz parts, he said.

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"Three gigahertz wasn't on our roadmap," he said, but the company is responding to customer requests for such a part.

AMD and Intel have been racing to squeeze as many processing engines, called cores, into a single processor or processor package as possible--an approach that works well for server jobs that often juggle numerous simultaneous tasks. But some customers also want each task to be completed as fast as possible. It's a balancing act, because adding more cores means chips consume more power and therefore typically must run at lower clock speeds.

Kilroy wouldn't say when Intel planned to release the 3GHz model, but it will arrive before Intel releases a new generation of Xeons built with 45-nanometer manufacturing process toward the end of 2007, said Boyd Davis, general manager of marketing for Intel's Server Platforms Group. Current Xeons are built using a process with circuitry elements measuring 65 nanometers; a nanometer is a billionth of a meter.

AMD is just now moving to its 65-nanometer process, and its first product using it will be Barcelona. With it, the company hopes to reclaim some of the momentum it built with Opteron. Much like Intel did a year ago, AMD is training the eyes of customers, analysts and press on a product that has yet to ship, in hopes they don't notice the current product.

Intel boldly predicted its Core 2 Duo chips would outperform AMD's processors, and AMD is making similar predictions about Barcelona, expected to arrive in systems in the third quarter of this year.

"Barcelona is more of a killer product than Opteron when it was launched," said Henri Richard, executive vice president in charge of sales and marketing at AMD. The company believes Barcelona will vault it ahead of Intel once again.

It's been a rough stretch for AMD's server business of late. The company has been cutting the prices of its server chips to deal with Intel's latest dual-core and quad-core server processors, which contributed to disappointing fourth-quarter earnings and still didn't prevent the loss of some server market share to Intel.

But the company has decided to come out swinging at its larger rival. "I think we've been too quiet," Richard said.

Barcelona will deliver 42 percent better floating-point performance than Intel's Xeon X5355 Clovertown, said Mario Rivas, executive vice president of the computing products group at AMD, making the comparison with the SPEC_fp benchmark that measures mathematical calculation speed. Using SPEC_int, which measures more common integer-processing tasks, Barcelona will outperform Clovertown by greater than 10 percent, AMD said, without being specific.

Intel has other competitive developments under way. On the performance front, the company will release a chip and chipset in the second half of 2007 for dual-processor machines that communicate at 1600MHz compared with today's 1333MHz front-side bus. Improving that speed reduces delays fetching information from memory.

In addition, Intel will release in the third quarter a new version of its higher-end Xeons for multiprocessor machines with four or more processors, Kilroy said. The current "Tulsa" chip is the last of its generation, and the new "Tigerton" will be the first to employ the Core architecture of Intel's newly competitive chips. Kilroy said the chip will be power-efficient enough to fit into blade servers, unlike Tulsa.

Intel also plans to expand virtualization technology to computers' input-output subsystem with a feature called VT-d that will ship in chips and chipsets in 2007, Kilroy said. Today's virtualization technology makes it easier to let a processor run multiple operating systems simultaneously in separate partitions called virtual machines. VT-d is geared to bring that virtualized interface to input-output hardware such as hard drives and networks, Davis said.

"Virtual storage and I/O are the next big challenges. We're going to lead that trend," Davis said.