AMD chip socket makes room for others

Licensing move will let others build specialized coprocessors that will plug into sockets tailored to Opteron or Athlon.

Stephen Shankland
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Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes 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.
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Advanced Micro Devices will let computer makers pop specialized coprocessors into sockets that otherwise would house an AMD primary processor such as Opteron or Athlon.

It's an expansion of the Torrenza initiative, introduced in May, which provides a way for others to connect their technology directly to AMD chips, via the company's HyperTransport interface. The program initially let companies plug in their coprocessors via an external connection called "HTX." Now it is licensing the processor socket design as well, said Marty Seyer, senior vice president for AMD's commercial business.

That means a computer maker doesn't have to develop a separate design if it wants to use a coprocessor--a special-purpose chip for handling tasks such as graphics, mathematical calculations or security. "Now an OEM (original equipment manufacturer)--say, IBM--only has to develop one infrastructure," Seyer said.

Manufacturers that have licensed the socket technology include IBM, Sun Microsystems, Cray and Fujitsu-Siemens, a Fujitsu subsidiary, Seyer said. Among other things, the technology includes details about how different processors keep track of what data is stored in each others' cache memories, through a feature called "coherent HyperTransport."

"We are working with five to 10 coprocessor partners that are at various stages" in development, Seyer said.

AMD is pushing HyperTransport as one of its competitive advantages against rival Intel, and it has made significant market share gains. But Intel processors once again are competitive, and Intel is working on a HyperTransport rival called the "Common System Interface." It's not yet clear whether Intel will let others directly connect chips to its own via CSI.

IBM wouldn't comment on its specific plans, but it has shown a general interest in coprocessors in the design of the "Roadrunner" supercomputer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said Bernie Meyerson, the chief technologist in IBM's Systems and Technology Group. Roadrunner uses more than 16,000 Cell processors to accelerate calculations running on more than 16,000 AMD Opteron chips.

IBM welcomes the chipmaker's idea. "You can take plain vanilla hardware that has the open socket and turn it into an appliance where it may have a hundredfold increase in a particular capability," Meyerson said.

AMD expects the first socket-based coprocessors to arrive in 2007, spokesman Phil Hughes said. He declined to reveal payment terms for the licensing.

Although the coprocessors are expected to first arrive in servers--for example, in those used for high-performance technical computing--the idea also will be useful for personal computers, Seyer said.

For example, graphics processors that today communicate over the relatively slow PCI Express conduit could be plugged directly into a socket instead, Seyer said. Other possibilities include physics engines that could help video games, or security processors that could deal with virus attacks.