IBM announces full AMD Opteron server line

Three years after chip's debut, Big Blue wholeheartedly embraces Opteron with five new servers.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise Processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science. Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
5 min read
IBM has dramatically expanded a partnership to use Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processors in its servers, announcing on Tuesday a full-fledged server line geared for mainstream business use.

The move, first reported by CNET News.com, gives IBM a stronger portfolio to counter Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and Dell, which already have embraced mainstream Opteron servers. It also gives AMD a more powerful ally during a time when Intel is trying hard to reverse market share losses.

Bill Zeitler, head of IBM's server group, and Hector Ruiz, AMD's chief executive, announced the alliance at an event in New York. The new servers will ship within the next three months, IBM said, but it won't detail prices until the launch of the next-generation "Rev F" Opteron chips. That's expected Aug. 15 at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in San Francisco, according to sources familiar with the event.

Big Blue's lineup already included AMD-based servers for the high-performance technical computing market as well as a dual-processor blade server. Now the product line becomes much broader, with mainstream rack-mounted business servers accommodating two or four processors, and an upgrade that permits two dual-processor blades to be linked into a four-processor server.

The change is the latest in a series of victories for AMD. Since introducing Opteron in April 2003, it has rewritten the rules of the x86 server market, which rival Intel previously had to itself. AMD got ahead of Intel with power-efficient designs with fast memory and communications subsystems and a 64-bit design, and it now has 25.9 percent market share in x86 servers.

Intel began its effort to introduce 64-bit chips, which accommodate vastly larger amounts of memory than 32-bit models, with Itanium. But that processor effectively couldn't run software designed for x86 chips such as Pentium or Opteron. IBM was drawn to AMD because of its chips' compatibility and strong technology, Zeitler said.

"Compatibility and excellence in architecture and execution have really helped establish AMD and our partnership with AMD," he said.

Woodcrest in waiting
Intel is fighting back with its "Woodcrest" Xeon 5100 family for dual-processor servers, which improve performance while reducing power consumption. But it still has a long way to go: Its forthcoming "Tulsa" Xeon for four-processor machines still is based on the discredited and power-hungry NetBurst architecture.

"I've been very impressed with Woodcrest. Intel has done an amazing job," said Scott Tease, the worldwide product manager for IBM's BladeCenter servers. But, he added, "I can't help thinking that some of that competitive spirit has come back to Intel because of AMD being there."

AMD's Rev F Opterons use faster memory and add virtualization abilities that increase server efficiency. In addition, Rev F chips plug into a new socket with 1,207 electrical connections that will accommodate quad-core successors, thought to be called "Rev G," in 2007.

Tease offered some details on IBM's new servers. All will be available in the third quarter of this year, except the dual-processor System x3655, due shortly after, he said.

• The System x3755 is a rack-mounted four-processor model that IBM says is good for car crash simulations or databases, for example. The system, 7 inches thick, has business-oriented features such as systems management and backup power supplies, and it accommodates as much as 128GB of memory.

• The System x3655 is a dual-processor model for mainstream business tasks such as databases. It's 3.5 inches thick, has management features and redundant power, and accommodates up to 64GB of memory.

• The System x3455 is an update to the e326, a 1.75-inch-thick, rack-mounted dual-processor machine for high-performance computing. It lacks redundant power.

• The BladeCenter LS21 is an update to the existing LS20 two-processor blade using the Rev F Opteron chips. It's the same width, 30mm, meaning that as many as 14 can be plugged into one BladeCenter chassis.

• The BladeCenter LS41 is a four-processor blade. It's built on an LS21 foundation, but with higher-end Opteron processors. A second electronics board can be attached to double the processor count--along with the width and number of BladeCenter chassis slots.

IBM has some serious competition already, though. HP, by a sizable margin the leading x86 server seller, already provides the 7-inch, four-Opteron ProLiant DL585 and the 3.5-inch-thick, two-Opteron DL385. It's expected to update those systems with Rev F-based designs later this month.

And the most aggressive Opteron strategy is from Sun, which is using the chip to try to gain a foothold in the x86 server market it shunned for years. It began its hard charge last year with dual-Opteron models: the 1.75-inch Sun Fire X4100 and 3.5-inch X4200. It expanded the effort in July with the eight-processor X4600, the storage-rich X4500, and the massive Sun Blade 8000 with four-Opteron blades.

Even Dell has decided to add Opteron servers, announcing in May it will sell a four-processor model. It had long been an Intel-only computer maker.

IBM reheats AMD alliance
Of the top four server makers--collectively responsible for about four-fifths of spending in the market--Big Blue was the first to sell Opteron servers. But its first models were only for a limited market of high-performance computing, where customers didn't need features such as backup power supplies.

That changed somewhat in 2005 with the introduction of Opteron blades, which Zeitler said now account for 30 percent of IBM's blade server shipments. But still, Opteron systems were something of a red-headed stepchild. For example, they weren't sold under the xSeries server brand, which only described Intel-based systems. That changed this year, when IBM moved to the System x brand, which encompasses both Intel- and AMD-based servers.

IBM also is sinking engineering resources into the AMD servers by putting within the 8-year-old Enterprise X Architecture an initiative to bring high-end mainframe technology to mainstream x86 servers, said Susan Whitney, head of the System x business.

"What you see today leverages AMD Opteron technology and marries it with IBM's Enterprise X Architecture," Whitney said.

One result, she argued, is performance that increases proportionally as more processors are added, rather than employing only a diminishing fraction of each new chip's ability. That so-called linear scalability is the result of IBM's "pass-through" technology that connects to Opteron's HyperTransport on-chip communication links.

Another EXA feature for Opteron is "accelerated memory," which means the memory communication links run at a full 667MHz even when fully loaded with memory; other designs ratchet back to 533MHz when more than four memory modules are used, she said.