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AMD aims to reclaim CPU crown with 2007 quad-core

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AMD aims to reclaim CPU crown with 2007 quad-core

Berkeley (CA) – AMD yesterday presented the first native quad-core CPU, a processor that combines four cores within one die, to analysts. Few details have been provided at the time of the announcement, but the puzzle is coming together and suggests that AMD may have a shot at trumping Intel by mid-2007, at least until the blue team rolls out 45 nm chips.

Barcelona quad-core, technical details …

A simplified look at the CPU industry over the past three, four years could suggest that the impact of competition wasn’t taken as seriously as it should have been. AMD seemingly was able to surprise Intel and attack the blue team in various market segments ranging down from the server to the notebook. Intel, seemingly ignoring performance and power consumption trends was hit hard especially in the server segment and still struggles today in the 4P space. On the other hand, AMD at least publicly ignore the potential strength of the Core microarchitecture that basically wiped out AMD’s technology lead in the desktop, workstation and volume server space.

While AMD is still very upbeat on its (continuing) success, the company did not have such a great run recently. Just announced yesterday, the firm’s Quad FX (4×4) platform was not able to spark the kind of enthusiasm we would have expected from such an innovative product. Most reviewers, including Tom’s Hardware Guide, were hesitant to point to some benefits of the platform and concluded that it isn’t a competitor for Intel’s quad-core at this time. Even if AMD has been criticizing Intel for quickly assembling a “pseudo” quad core processor (that basically consists of two dual-cores) for the sake of having the first quad-core in the market, doesn’t change much the fact that AMD has gambled away its lead, perhaps by underestimating how quickly an angry Intel could strike back.

Barcelona, AMD’s first quad-core processor

First signs of an AMD that actually recognizes the threat of Core came just before the announcement of Intel’s desktop Core 2 Duo processors in July. During the announcement of the firm’s Q2 results, chief operating officer Dirk Meyer said that 65 nm chips will be rolled out earlier than planned, at the end of 2006, the release of 45 nm processors was accelerated to within 18 months after 65 nm launch and a first native quad-core chip heading for a mid-2007 introduction.

Not quite half a year later, analysts have seen this quad-core processor in a monstrous system: As reported yesterday, the Barcelona Opteron was demonstrated in a 4P system, resulting in a total of 16 processor cores. AMD flaunted its lead in this segment, as Intel currently is able to run only 8 cores – which consume more power than AMD’s 16 – in a comparable system.

It’s obvious that AMD has reorganized its resources for a shot at the CPU market. That shot is largely based on the argument that Barcelona – and its Agena/Agena FX sister cores for the desktop – are native quad-cores. While most enthusiasts and software developers could care less if their CPU is a native quad-core or a dual-die quad-core such as Intel’s Clovertown/Kentsfield, AMD is counting on the fundamental strengths of its Opteron/Athlon strategy to improve its position in the market. AMD claims that its native quad-core will not consume more power that the current dual-core Opteron line-up, meaning that the company will offer 68 watt, 95 watt and 125 watt power envelopes. A consistency of power envelopes is important especially for the enterprise segment, as companies are able to simply upgrade from an Opteron dual core (AMD will offer quad-core CPUs with 1207 and AM2 sockets) to a quad-core without having to reconsider cooling requirement. In that view, a Barcelona update is as simple as open the case – drop in the chip – close the box.

Intel has adopted a similar strategy lately, with Xeon DP dual-core and quad-core processors using a thermal design power (TDP) of “80 watts or less” for mainstream units. However, Intel is not yet as consistent as AMD and offers varying power levels between quad-core processors: For example, the company will release in Q1 2007 the LV 5310 quad-core with a TDP of 50 watts, while the comparable dual-core LV 5148 consumes a maximum of only 40 watts. These numbers show that AMD will not be able to win customers on the sole claim of lower power consumption anymore.

Barcelona, technical details

On the technical side, AMD has chosen a very different road to quad-core. Integrating all four cores under one roof, the Barcelona chip will reserve 64 kB of L1 cache and 512 kB of L2 cache for each core, which, according to the company, will avoid access conflicts that can happen in shared caches (Intel claims that its “SmartCache” avoids such conflicts in shared caches as well). Barcelona will also use a shares 2 MB L3 cache, which can be expanded “at the right time.”

The 65 nm – Barcelona will be the first 65 nm Opteron processor – architecture also integrates Hypertransport links with a bandwidth of up to 8 GB, dual 128-bit SSE data interfaces, a new crossbar design, enhanced power management, and support for DDR2 memory. Comparable to Intel’s Core technology, AMD is able to control the load on each processor core. If there is no need to use all four cores, only one, two or three cores will be filled up with data, which causes one or more cores to sit idle. As a result, power consumption can drop dramatically (see slideshow for details).

AMD chief sales & marketing officer Henri Richard compares AMD’s “Barcelona” Opteron quad-core (left) to Intel’s dual-die Clovertown (Xeon 5300) quad-core CPU.

AMD has not provided performance data for Barcelona, but initial presentations let us believe that AMD is not only aiming to match Intel’s Clovertown processor. Barcelona is positioned as a new, scalable platform that could carry AMD for some time. On the desktop side, Barcelona is related to the Agena FX (Athlon 64 FX) and Agena (Athlon 64 X2) processors, which are scheduled to be released in early Q3 2007. Agena cores will be clocked between 2.7 GHz and 2.9 GHz, will be manufactured in 65 nm and also use socket 1207.

Intel’s roadmap, on the other side, could indicate that the company is either in a wait-and-see state or is now focusing all its resources on the 45 nm processor launch, which is scheduled for late 2007/early 2008. The “Penryn” core will end up in a range of new processors, including the desktop processors “Bloomfield” (quad-core, single-die), “Yorkfield” (8-core, dual-die) and Ridgefield (dual-core, single-die). AMD will not be able to match Intel’s 45 nm technology at least until mid-2008. Sources indicate that the Penryn core will bring a substantial improvement in processing performance.

At least from today’s view, AMD has an opportunity to make up lost ground and regain technology lead for at least six months in 2007. The open questions are how strong Intel’s Penryn will be and how AMD’s strategy to integrate ATI technology into its platforms will develop over the next 12 to 24 months.