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AMD's Barcelona not a savior, yet

After a delay, Barcelona is here, but is it the clear winner AMD promised it would be? That's uncertain.

Advanced Micro Devices' quad-core Opteron processor is finally ready, but it's far from clear that this is the product that will help right AMD's ship.

AMD CEO Hector Ruiz will formally unveil the quad-core Opteron chip, previously code-named Barcelona, during an event in San Francisco Monday evening. Over a year in the making, and six months later than expected, Barcelona will be AMD's first chip with four processing cores.

Intel has had quad-core chips for servers since last November. The company chose an easier-to-implement method of putting four processing cores together by simply packaging two dual-core chips together. AMD took a different approach, integrating all four cores onto a single chip, with the belief that having all four cores together was a better fit for its architecture.

Will that insistence on a specific design goal make a difference? In some ways, it already has.

AMD has been forced to severely discount server processor prices this year to compete against Intel's quad-core chips, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. The company's sales force is in the middle of a reorganization following the departure of its top two sales executives. And because of Barcelona's delay, caused by technical glitches brought on by its challenging design, Ruiz will introduce Barcelona about 10 weeks before Intel's launches its second-generation quad-core server processor. The initial reviews have yet to surface, but it seems AMD might be able to stop the bleeding with Barcelona. The four major server vendors in the world--Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems--all plan to use Barcelona in their servers. And AMD thinks it can court new customers by emphasizing a different metric for measuring power consumption in data centers.

But AMD will not deliver--at least not yet--on promises made by Randy Allen, corporate vice president of AMD's server and workstation division, in January. "We expect across a wide variety of workloads for Barcelona to outperform Clovertown by 40 percent," Allen said. In May, Allen told reporters that Barcelona "will be the highest-performing x86 chip out there. It will blow away Clovertown."

There was no proof to those statements in the test results AMD distributed ahead of the Barcelona launch. In its briefing materials, the company touted only benchmark results that emphasized floating-point performance and memory bandwidth, which have always been strengths of the Opteron processor but do not cover the entire spectrum of the server market. And even among those benchmarks, Barcelona outperformed Intel's Xeon X5345 processor by more than 40 percent on only three criteria.

Barcelona will arrive in three different categories for high-performance, standard-issue, and energy-efficient server models. The high-performance models won't be available until the fourth quarter, but two standard and three energy efficient processors are now available for two-socket servers, the dominant segment of the market. Two processors for four-socket servers in both the standard and energy-efficient categories also will be available.

"ACP is meant to be the best real-world end-user estimate of what they are likely to see from the power consumption on the processor."
--Bruce Shaw, director of server and workstation marketing, AMD

In the standard category, AMD will launch processors at 2GHz and 1.9GHz, costing $389 and $319, respectively. The energy-efficient Opterons will launch at 1.9GHz, 1.8GHz and 1.7GHz.

That's slower than some had expected from Barcelona, and could have something to do with the company's earlier projections for Barcelona's performance against Intel. When "technical glitches" arise in processor production, they are often solved by running the chip at slower clock speeds until the problems can be ironed out.

AMD plans to launch 2.3GHz high-performance versions in the fourth quarter and will likely boost clock speed as momentum starts to grow behind the chip. The company demonstrated a 3GHz Barcelona chip at its analyst day in July. Clock speed is by no means the only measure of processor performance, but it is an important measure.

As a result, AMD will initially market its chips in part by using a new metric it developed for measuring the average power consumed by its processors. Power consumption has become a huge issue for companies looking to build large data centers. It's increasingly more expensive to provide electricity and cooling to data centers than it is to buy the servers themselves, forcing the chip and server industries to work on building more energy-efficient products.

But AMD customers who relied on the company's previous power metric of TDP (thermal design power) were putting too many resources into cooling and electrical supply, said Bruce Shaw, director of server and workstation marketing for AMD. That's because TDP was developed so server manufacturers would know much power the chip consumes in worst-case maximum-power situations that very rarely occur, and design their systems accordingly, he said.

So now AMD will advise customers of an Opteron processor's average CPU (central processing unit) power, or ACP. "ACP is meant to be the best real-world end-user estimate of what they are likely to see from the power consumption on the processor," Shaw said.

This will give customers a better sense of how they should plan for the power consumed by Opteron servers, Shaw said. AMD still plans to publish TDP ratings that are important to server designers, but will direct customers to the ACP figure, which has the added bonus of being significantly lower than TDP.

AMD says it won't use the ACP number to compare the power consumption of its processors against Intel's. AMD is publishing the methodology behind the ACP metric, but Shaw said the company won't rate Intel's processors by using the metric for comparison purposes. Still, it is touting average CPU power of 55 watts for the energy-efficient Barcelona models and 75 watts for the standard models, which could confuse some customers for investors used to TDP comparisons.

Listen up daily podcast Reporter Tom Krazit talks about Barcelona's significance to AMD.

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Power consumption marketing is the new battleground for Intel and AMD, and it can be a minefield when trying to make a purchase decision, given the different implementations each company uses. But AMD does appear to have some advantages over Intel in pure energy efficiency, according to independent tests by Neal Nelson and Associates and demonstrations performed by AMD during its most recent analyst day, which could help it gain traction in the growing blade-server market.

That's good, because marketing its chips on pure performance is no longer a possibility for AMD. After years of touting the superior performance of its dual-core Opteron chips against Intel's dual-core Xeon processors, AMD's clear advantage ended with the launch of Intel's Core microarchitecture processors in June last year. Although Opteron still does well against Xeon on certain workloads that demand excellent floating-point performance or memory bandwidth, it's no longer the undisputed winner that it once was.

And it doesn't appear that Barcelona leapfrogs Intel's current quad-core chips to the degree predicted by Allen in January. The quad-core Opteron outdoes Intel by 35 percent on the SPECfp_rate2006 benchmark, a test of floating-point performance administered by the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (SPEC) that's long been an Opteron strongpoint and is generally a metric eyed by those with high-performance computing needs, such as labs and research institutions.

But AMD didn't provide specific numbers for SPECint_rate, a measure of integer-processing speed that relates more directly than SPECfp_rate to business-computing tasks such as e-mail or database transactions. However, according to published scores and AMD's performance estimates, Barcelona appears to trail Intel's current Xeon chips by a significant margin. AMD said the two-socket edition of Barcelona would be 55 percent faster on SPECint_rate2006 than its current dual-core Opteron chips, which received a score of 56.8. That would put Barcelona at around 88, much slower than the published results for Intel's two-socket quad-core Xeon chips running at 3GHz, which received a score of 116.

AMD uses an old benchmark, SPECompM2001 base, in another comparison. The other benchmarks touted by AMD will delight high-performance computing customers but aren't as relevant for the corporate market. The new Opteron does well on the Fluent and LSDYNA benchmarks that emphasize floating-point performance and memory bandwith.

Those aren't the types of applications that crop up more often for most business customers, and AMD doesn't cite any application-specific benchmarks that crop up more frequently, such as tests of Java performance database-driven financial software from SAP.

One strong suit that AMD can point to is virtualization technology, which is becoming increasingly important to server customers. The performance of VMware's software will be 79 percent better on AMD's quad-core Opteron compared with the previous generation, according to AMD. The company built several hooks into Barcelona that were designed to improve virtualization performance.

But it appears that Barcelona is far from the smash hit that AMD once hoped it had with its "native" quad-core design. And Intel has new quad-core chips in the offing around mid-November, with a dramatic overhaul expected next year to mimic many of AMD's design features that made Opteron a winner in the past.

AMD's best hope is to get Barcelona's clock speeds up to higher levels as quickly as possible, which could unlock the advantages of putting all the cores on the same processor die. One disadvantage of Intel's implementation is that signals have to leave one dual-core chip to visit the other, and that takes time.

Barcelona is expected to be available in servers from two of AMD's server partners on Monday, and in a few weeks from the others. It likely won't add too much revenue to AMD's coffers until the fourth quarter, meaning the company could be in for another rough patch until Barcelona reaches a wider portion of the market.

CNET's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.