AMD tears up server road map to push stability

AMD has added three new processor designs to its server road map, and removed two, in a move that will delay the arrival of a new processor core design for servers until 2010, at the earliest.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
4 min read

AMD has dramatically revised its future road map for server processors, adding a new six-core processor and pushing out the arrival of a next-generation core well into the next decade.

Now that the company finally has the Barcelona mess in its rearview mirror, AMD has taken a hard look at its server plans. The chipmaker will extend the life of its current processor core technology through 2010, and has added a six-core processor code-named Istanbul for the second half of 2009.

A four-core and eight-core design code-named Montreal, on the road map as recently as last December (click for PDF, slide 21), has disappeared entirely. It will be replaced by six-core and 12-core designs known as "Sao Paolo" and "Magny-Cours" (Formula 1 race venues, I'm told), which are scheduled to arrive in the first half of 2010 and are based on the same underlying processor core technology as Barcelona, said Randy Allen, corporate vice president and head of AMD's server division. That means those chips will not use the "Bulldozer" core first introduced by AMD in July 2007.

Istanbul, Sao Paolo, and Magny-Cours are the new chips on AMD's roadmap, replacing a previous plan code-named Montreal. AMD

The changes seem designed to ensure AMD delivers on its promises. Barcelona was a crisis on two fronts: the technical execution problems that delayed the chip by almost a year, and the worry among AMD's customers and investors that the company was in over its head in its transition into a stable, trusted enterprise computing supplier.

After all, before Opteron arrived, AMD had virtually no track record in the server market. Opteron changed that, making AMD a well-known quantity inside the server rooms of the Fortune 500 and a supplier to every major server vendor on the planet.

But the Barcelona debacle had to have changed the way AMD's customers viewed the company, and the feedback appears to have been simple: Just make contact. Don't swing for the fences.

Sao Paolo and Magny-Cours will require a new chipset to accomodate the switch to faster DDR3 memory and will be built using AMD's 45-nanometer manufacturing technology. Istanbul will drop into servers built for Barcelona or Shanghai, the 45-nanometer version of Barcelona scheduled for later this year, making for an easier transition for customers using Barcelona. Montreal was scheduled to introduce a new chipset into AMD's lineup in 2009, but that won't arrive now until 2010.

Istanbul is a clear response to Intel's Dunnington processor, a six-core server chip also scheduled for the second half of this year. But Istanbul won't be out until the second half of 2009, long after Intel's Nehalem generation of processors has begun to ship.

The chip will buy AMD time, however, to concentrate on its new plan for 2010. Bulldozer was that plan as recently as July 2007, but plans for chips based on the Bulldozer core--a powerful, modular core designed as part of the Fusion project--vanished from AMD's road map in December.

As recently as April, AMD President and COO Dirk Meyer was telling financial analysts that samples of Bulldozer were still on the schedule for 2009. But he neglected to mention how AMD intends to use it, because AMD isn't confident enough in its plans for the Bulldozer cores to share them with the public, Allen said.

Instead, AMD decided to push forward with the Sao Paolo and Magny-Cours products and reuse the existing core design used in Barcelona and planned for Shanghai and Istanbul. Upping the core count planned for that timeframe from 4 and 8 to 6 and 12 will deliver a nice performance boost, Allen said.

Server customers with heavily parallelized workloads will opt for Magny-Cours, while Sao Paolo will be the choice of customers that just need a few threads worth of performance to run at faster speeds. Clock speeds have yet to be determined, but the 6-core Sao Paolo will run faster than the 12-core Magny-Cours, Allen said.

Tearing up your road map is never a good sign, but at least it's a signal that AMD is taking a pragmatic approach to the next several years. The company is in serious trouble, having lost hundreds of millions of dollars over the last several quarters and will probably need to break even in the second half of the year to save the job of CEO Hector Ruiz.

The question now is whether or not any further road map revisions are in store for AMD's PC processor lineup. For some time, AMD had planned to introduce its "accelerated computing" initative, formerly known as the Fusion project, in 2009 in its notebook lineup.

For now, that plan appears unchanged, but with the departure of Fusion planner CTO Phil Hester and a 10 percent layoff going into effect over the next several months, something might have to give.