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Power-efficient server processors going prime time at last

AMD's new Opteron EE takes aim at a growing class of server user, the service provider, who buys into the power efficiency mantra.

Processors for servers with a power-efficiency design center are nothing new.

The RLX Technologies and Transmeta tag-team were at the forefront of the blade form factor during the Internet boom. Transmeta supplied the low-power, code-morphed processors at the heart of RLX blades. Neither company is still in business.

There have been other examples. HP introduced a blade, the BL10e, that used the Pentium M mobile processor but targeted server workloads. In 2005, Intel took another shot with "Sossoman," an explicitly server-oriented chip based on the "Yonah" mobile core.

None of these took off in any big way. They spoke to power consumption and density issues that weren't, by and large, the issues of enterprise buyers. Thus, underutilized servers notwithstanding, enterprises continued to buy mainstream processors whether they really needed the extra performance they delivered (at the cost of higher power consumption) or not.

The situation in enterprises today has probably not changed as much as vendors waving "green" flags around like to profess. (It's also true that even mainstream processors pay more attention to efficiency than in the past.) However, there's another growing class of customers, service providers, that are acutely aware of all their operational costs--including the power bill.

It's these customers that AMD is targeting with its new Opteron EE processor. Here's how AMD describes the processor:

The Quad-Core AMD Opteron EE processor adds significant power efficiency improvements over the Quad-Core AMD Opteron HE processor within the same platform with a 13 percent reduction in platform-level power consumption and up to a 14 percent reduction in processor power at idle. At the same performance level, the new EE processor delivers up to 62 percent improved performance-per-watt over the previous generation.

The 45nm "Shanghai" Opteron EE comes in 2.1GHz and 2.3GHz speed grades and has a 40-watt ACP. (ACP is "Average CPU Power" and is the metric AMD favors to describe the power consumption of its processors.) The other Opteron power bands are:

  • Opteron HE (55 watt ACP): rack-dense and blade environments
  • Opteron (75 watt): mainstream parts with the best price/performance/$
  • Opteron SE (105 watt ACP): performance above all else

Opteron EE is therefore not just your basic low-end-of-the-frequency-scale part. Rather, it's explicitly targeted for cloud computing and Web 2.0--in other words, the type of uses and customers who explicitly value (as in are willing to pay for) power efficiency.

That's because Opteron EE chips are binned (that is, selected from Opteron production runs) for power efficiency characteristics--such as leakage current. They're not simply the fall-outs at the low end of the frequency range as lower power processors have often been historically.

Rather, these are premium parts intended for bid to large cloud providers, a group that, after years of vendors pushing the mantra of lower-power processors, is actually buying that message.