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For AMD's new chips, connection is key

The company says its Hammer chips will alleviate bottlenecks by using a memory controller, which will be integrated into the processor.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--For Advanced Micro Devices' upcoming Hammer chips, it's all about the connections.

One of the major performance enhancements of Hammer, the code name for a family of microprocessors coming from AMD next year, will derive from how the chip connects to other components, Fred Weber, the company's chief technical officer, said at the Microprocessor Forum here Monday.

Right now, chips communicate to the outside world through a series of buses, or data paths, which often run slower than the processor.

By contrast, Hammer will speed up and eliminate many of those paths. A memory controller, a piece of silicon that connects the processor to main memory, will be integrated into the processor, eliminating one bottleneck. Chips inside a multiprocessor server or workstation will be able to communicate through HyperTransport links, a high-speed chip interconnect technology from AMD, rather than through the oft-crowded common thoroughfare of the chipset.

Although samples of the chip will not come out until next year, Hammer will be able to trounce other server chips on common benchmarks, Weber said. The server version of Hammer will achieve a SPECint2000 score, a common server benchmark that will nearly double the scores of current chips.

"I'd like to think of this as the result of good plumbing," Weber said.

Commercial nirvana, of course, will be an uphill battle. While versions of Hammer will appear in the desktop and notebook market, many of the performance benefits will only show up in multiprocessor servers and workstations. To date, AMD has managed to only lightly penetrate this market. In May, both Compaq Computer and IBM said they had no plans to adopt the chip.

The chip family has also been subject to delays.

Still, "If they can achieve these scores, some large manufacturers will pick it up," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. "This is like someone announcing at the beginning of the season that they are going to hit 80 home runs."

Hammer will compete against a wide swath of server chip designs. SledgeHammer, a 64-bit chip, will go up against Intel's Itanium, Sun's UltraSparc III and other processors that process data in 64-bit chunks and run 64-bit applications. Mostly, the chip will be aimed at customers who are migrating from RISC-based servers, such as those made by HP, to Itanium. SledgeHammer, which arrives in samples in the first half of 2002, and commercially in the second half, will appear in four- and eight-processor servers.

ClawHammer, meanwhile, will come out in small workstations, desktops and notebooks. Hardware-wise, the two Hammers are virtually identical. The difference comes in the fact that ClawHammer processes 32-bit applications. The chip only uses half the data path contained in the processor core. In the past, a similar design was used when the software industry was migrating the public from 16-bit to 32-bit applications.

"The vast majority of users won't need 64 bits for some time to come," Weber said.

Nonetheless, consumers will benefit from the integrated memory controller and other features. Transmeta's Crusoe chip also comes with an integrated memory controller.

While idling part of processor means that ClawHammer will contain unused circuitry, that unused area only constitutes 5 percent of the chip's overall space, allowing it to remain cost competitive.

In some ways, AMD's biggest problem could be in the scope of its ambitions. While the company's chip designs have received accolades in recent years, it cannot match the sheer heft of engineering resources of Intel, said Kevin Krewell, an analyst at MicroDesign Resources.

The performance requirements of the different computing segments are also creating divergence within chip lines. Intel, for instance, uses a different architecture in its 64-bit line.

"It is going to be tougher and tougher to use" a single processor core, he said.

AMD is scheduled to report third-quarter earnings Wednesday. The chipmaker is expected to post a third-quarter loss of 28 cents a share on sales of $778.6 million, according to First Call. The results are expected to be down sharply from the second quarter, when AMD reported a profit of 5 cents a share on sales of $985 million.

AMD announced the expected loss in a statement blaming falling prices, a result of its price war with Intel, and slowing flash-memory sales.

On a positive note, AMD said it held the line in processor shipments in the third quarter, moving as many as, or more than, it did in the second quarter, when it shipped 7.7 million chips.

Rival Intel is slated to report its earnings Tuesday. The chipmaker is expected to log a third-quarter profit of 10 cents a share on revenue of $6.4 billion, according to First Call. But Intel is not without concerns. Confusion surrounds the availability date for its next Pentium 4 chip.