AMD unleashes next-generation Opteron chips

Chipmaker's response to Intel's new Xeons speeds memory and paves way to quad-core. Photos: Servers ride on new Opterons

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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Advanced Micro Devices plans to announce its new "Rev F" generation of Opteron server processors Tuesday, the next volley in a competition with Intel's newly competitive Xeon models.

The Rev F Opterons, all dual-core models, add new virtualization abilities and faster memory, run at the same 2.6GHz top speed as preceding mainstream models, and plug into AMD's new "Socket F." Although that new socket disrupts server designers' easy upgrade path from one Opteron to the next, it also lays the foundation for quad-core chips in 2007 and for server designs through the end of the decade.

New Opterons

"At some point you do have to start over," Ideas International analyst Rich Partridge said. "When a company is refining, it plays the investment protection card. When it needs go to a new design, then it plays the card of new-generation technology."

Indeed, the chips announced Tuesday at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in San Francisco are officially called the Next-Generation Opterons. They'll appear in new servers from Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and others. As reported, the model numbers are increased by an order of magnitude compared with current Opterons, with the 1000 series for uniprocessor computers, the 2000 series for dual-processor computers, and the 8000 series for those with as many as eight.

Prices range from $255 in quantities of 1,000 for the lowest-end models to $2,649 for the fastest. The chips are available on Tuesday, as expected, and AMD has "taped out," or completed the first design, of its quad-core Opteron due in mid-2007, said Opteron product manager Steve Demski.

AMD began selling server-oriented chips only in 2003 but has made major gains since then, now claiming 26 percent of the x86 server chip market, according to Mercury Research. Part of its success was because Intel's newer Xeon chips were notable more for increases in waste heat and power consumption than for performance.

Intel regrouped and has just released its Xeon 5100 "Woodcrest" processors, which once again are competitive in performance and power consumption in lower-end servers. But in the meantime, AMD has won a foothold in all four major server makers' product lines.

IBM announced its first major mainstream Opteron servers earlier in August. Sun has bet heavily on Opteron, counting on the processor family's distinctions as a way to enter the x86 server market it shunned.

Meanwhile, x86 server leader HP sold 76,325 Opteron servers in the first quarter of 2006, a major fraction of the 520,744 total, according to IDC. Even Dell, the most loyal Intel customer, announced a plan for Opteron-based servers earlier this year.

"AMD has demonstrated that it is going to be around for a while," Partridge said. "Intel is going to try to push it back down, but AMD is not a one-trick pony that was there and is going to disappear."

Rev F features
The new Opteron chips, all with dual processing cores, include AMD-V virtualization technology, which makes it easier to boost server efficiency by running multiple operating systems simultaneously. Intel already has introduced the comparable Intel Virtualization Technology, but the ability of software such as Xen or VMware is only now arriving to take advantage of it.

Another significant change with Rev F Opteron is a faster version of the Double Data Rate memory technology called DDR2. With Woodcrest models of Xeon, Intel already moved to DDR2's sequel, FB-DIMM (fully buffered dual inline memory modules), which is based on DDR2 today but provides more capacity. AMD argues that FB-DIMM right now is merely more expensive and power-hungry, but the company will move to the technology later.

Rev F models come in three variations: The HE (high efficiency) models that consume a maximum of 68 watts; the regular 95-watt versions, and the SE (special edition) models that consume up to 120 watts but run 200MHz faster than regular models. SE and HE models cost more than their counterparts; so far Sun is the only SE customer.

The chips plug into motherboards via the Socket F connector with 1,207 electrical connections. The extra connections--a substantial increase over the 940 used in previous Opteron chips--will provide new signal pathways for information-hungry quad-core chips, AMD said.

Intel is working to reverse AMD's market share gains. In particular, it plans to release quad-core chips months earlier, though the designs package two Woodcrest Xeons into a single package rather than unifying the chips on a single slice of silicon.

The quad-core models are arriving this year, earlier than expected. In addition, Intel will release the "Tulsa" Xeon in weeks or months. It's the last of the Netburst lineage, but it features a gargantuan 16MB of high-speed cache memory that should give it good performance running databases.

Servers galore
Server makers are announcing several new machines in conjunction with the Rev F launch in addition to new models that IBM announced in August and Sun announced in July. Among them are the following:

• HP's dual-processor BL25p G2 and four-processor BL45p G2 upgrade earlier blade server models for HP's older P-Class server chassis, while the equivalent BL465c and BL685c models will be available for the new C-Class chassis, which features more sophisticated power management. The new servers will be available in the fourth quarter, when HP will announce pricing, said John Gromala, director of server platform marketing.

• HP's 3.5-inch-thick DL385 G2 and 7-inch-thick DL585 G2 rack-mounted servers that accommodate two and four Rev F Opterons, respectively. Because of faster memory, the systems are about 15 percent faster than their predecessors. They're also due in the fourth quarter.

• Sun upgraded its 1.75-inch-thick uniprocessor Sun Fire X2100 to the X2100 M2. The new system, designed to Sun's specifications but not by Sun itself, costs $945 for a bare-bones model.

• Sun introduced the new dual-processor X2200 M2. Because it lacks redundant power supplies, is best suited for high-performance technical computing clusters or lower-end tasks such as Web serving where an individual server failure is tolerable. Sun phased out an earlier equivalent dual-processor design, the V20z, said Pradeep Parmar, a Sun director. An X2200 M2 costs $1,595 for an entry-level model with a single 1.8GHz Opteron 2210 and $5,895 for one with dual 2.6GHz Opteron 2218 processors and 8GB of memory.

• IBM announced starting prices for its newly uncloaked Opteron server line, which the company said will be available in September. The dual-processor LS21 blade server begins at $2,699; the four-processor LS41 begins at $8,099; the dual-processor System x3455 for technical computing tasks begins at $2,118; the dual-processor x3655 for business computing begins at $2,809; and the four-processor x3755 begins at $6,999.


Correction: The name of the Opteron product manager, Steve Demski, was misspelled in the original version of this story.