Tech Industry

AMD releases dual-core server chips

Trio of dual-core Opterons hits the market, with three more and a desktop line soon to follow. Photos: AMD's double vision

Intel may have come out with dual-core processors a few days earlier, but Advanced Micro Devices says it is bringing out dual-core chips to the market where it counts.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based chipmaker on Thursday released its first three dual-core Opteron processors for servers. It plans to follow that release with three more server chips and a desktop line during the next two months.

Although desktop buyers will inevitably consume the performance that dual-core chips can provide, server customers will be able to use the performance almost immediately. Several applications and operating systems have already been retrofitted for running on dual-processor systems. Hewlett-Packard, IBM and others will insert the dual-core Opterons into servers.

Opteron chart

Intel's dual-core chips, which debuted Monday, are designed for desktops. Versions of its Xeon server chips won't come out until early 2006.

The release of the chips coincides with the second anniversary of the Opteron line. Before Opteron, AMD's server market share was close to a rounding error. Now, 55 percent of the Global 100 have installed Opteron servers, according to AMD, up from 40 at the end of last year.

Overall, a dual-core Opteron will outperform a single-core version running at the same speed by 40 percent to 70 percent, depending on the application, said Ben Williams, vice president of the commercial business at AMD.

The cheapest dual-core server chips will cost as much as the high-end single-core models. The Opteron 265, for instance, sells for $851 in 1,000-unit quantities, the same as the 252, the most expensive member of the 200 Opteron family.

While server customers also tend to be fairly conservative, the transition should move fairly quickly from single-core to dual-core chips because the new chips are fairly similar to the existing Opterons, Williams said. The new chips use the same package, fit on the same motherboards, and consume the same amount of power.

"The products look exactly alike except for the second core," he said. "Since we're only changing the processor core and the BIOS, it doesn't require the same level of system testing. The migration to multi-core will be much quicker than people think."

Still, "we won't see the impact of dual-core processors on the market until next year," said Dean McCarron, an analyst at Mercury Research.

Resource sharing
AMD's dual-core design is sort of like a condominium, with two independent computing units sharing some resources. The two processor cores are on the same piece of silicon. Each core has its own cache for rapid data access (unlike IBM's dual-core Power 4), but they share a memory controller and HyperTransport links.

The additional core, however, will not lead to data bottlenecks, Williams said. HyperTransport was recently sped up from 800MHz to 1GHz. "Even at 800MHz, we weren't saturating the bus," he said.

The first three chips--the Opteron 865, 870, and 875--run at 1.8GHz, 2GHz and 2.2GHz respectively. In late May, AMD will release the 265, 270 and 275. These chips will run at the same speed, but are designed for different markets. The 800 line goes into four-processor servers, while the 200 line goes into one- and two-unit boxes.

Although dual-core chips will begin to displace single-core models, AMD will continue to make single-core chips in 2006. Some customers aren't ready to move, and companies such as Oracle continue to view dual-core chips as two chips, a situation that could increase software costs for some customers, Williams said.

Meanwhile, the desktop chips will come out around June and will be called the Athlon 64 X2, Williams said. AMD will target these at regular users, who will use the two cores to run multiple tasks at once. Unlike Intel, AMD will not bring the dual-core concept to its Athlon 64 FX line of gamer chips yet because most games aren't threaded for dual-core operations.

"The FX will outperform the dual cores in the gaming environment, but the dual cores will outperform the FX in multitasking," Williams said.

Similar to most of the server chips, the dual-core desktops will cost more than their single-core counterparts. The chips will be priced between the FX chips (which sell for $827) and standard Athlon 64s (which top out at $643), Williams said.

The Athlon 64 line may also finally be able to live up to its full potential soon. Microsoft will release the 64-bit version of Windows at WinHEC next month. A 64-bit chip can juggle far more memory than standard 32-bit chips. Although Linux desktop OSes have been adapted to 64-bit computing, most people rely on Windows.