Intel Beware: AMD to Challenge Grip on Servers
Advanced Micro Devices Inc. has a chance to challenge Intel in the PC server market with the release of AMD’s high-performance Athlon microprocessor, assuming the company can deliver an SMP chipset and overcome its history of production problems.
Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD, www.amd.com) has a chance to challenge Intel Corp. in the PC server market with the release of AMD’s high-performance Athlon microprocessor, assuming the company can deliver an SMP chipset and overcome its history of production problems.
Since the Pentium Pro microprocessor was launched in January 1996, Intel has almost exclusively dominated the PC server space. Despite its age, Intel's P6 bus – the architectural backbone of the Pentium Pro, Pentium II and Pentium III microprocessors -- represents a marvel of engineering know-how. Competitors seeking to mount a challenge to Intel's server hegemony are hampered by the difficulty in custom engineering a system bus designed for the complexities of symmetric multiprocessing.
AMD solved this problem by basing the Athlon’s system bus on the proven EV6 bus from Compaq Computer Corp.'s Alpha systems. This strategy buys AMD’s bus instant credibility.
"One of the reasons that we can jump into [this high-end server space] so quickly is that we didn’t' have to define a multiprocessor bus," says Lance Smith, director of enterprise segment marketing at AMD.
The result is that Athlon, a seventh-generation microprocessor, clock-for-clock outperforms any Pentium III processor Intel ships -- or is likely to ship in the near future. Athlon, available in clockspeeds of 550-, 600- and 650-MHz, ships with 128 KB of on-chip L1 cache and features an L2 cache that can range in size from 512 KB to 8 MB. Like the Pentium III Xeon, the Athlon's L2 cache can run at a 1-1 ratio of CPU clockspeed to L2 cache speed; but AMD's flagship microprocessor can also support clockspeed-to-L2-cache ratios of 3-to-1, 2-to-1 and 1.5-to-1.
Athlon has the potential to challenge Intel in its most lucrative market segment -- SMP-based PC servers. The Alpha EV6 touts the demonstrated ability to outperform Intel's P6 system bus in SMP configurations of up to 14 processors. AMD is working with two companies -- Hotrail Inc. (www.hotrail.com) and Alpha Processor Inc. (www.alpha-processor.com) -- to develop a scalable SMP chipset for Athlon.
With the shared memory architecture of the P6 bus, the processors share the total system memory bandwidth -- about 800 MB per second in 100-Mhz Xeon-based systems. This means the P6 bus can bog down in SMP configurations of eight processors or more. Each SMP processor on the Alpha EV6 bus has the maximum memory bandwidth available to it at any one moment -- up to 1.6 Gigabits per second in Athlon systems running with 200-MHz SDRAM.
According to Nathan Brookwood, a principal analyst with the market research firm Insight 64, Athlon's strong performance on standard benchmarks and its promise as a high-performance SMP workhorse combine to give the impression of a potential Pentium III-killer.
"Certainly in terms of performance it has that characteristic [of a Pentium III-killer]; and given the delay in [Intel's next-generation] Coppermine [processor], it certainly will be the fastest chip on the block for the remainder of this year," Brookwood says. "It remains to be seen what will happen after Intel does get Coppermine fully up to speed on its .18 micron process, and whether Intel can accelerate the clockspeeds on Coppermine to make up for AMD's architectural advantages."
While most industry watchers agree that the Athlon processor represents an impressive engineering feat on AMD's part, not everyone is bullish on the company's prospects for leveraging its leading-edge technology to achieve market dominance. A troubled past fraught with production difficulties and chronic supply problems has at least one analyst thinking the introduction of AMD's new high-profile microprocessor might be a prelude to its most high-profile failure to date.
"AMD is a company that seems to promote the continual motto that its old problems are fixed -- and yet we hear this again every year," says Rob Enderle, senior analyst at Giga Information Group (www.gigaweb.com). "If they have the kind of supply problems and other difficulties that plagued the production of the K6, they literally will have to close their doors."
While AMD is hyping Athlon's promise as a powerful workhorse for SMP server environments, none of the major PC server vendors -- Compaq, IBM Corp. or Hewlett-Packard Co. -- has announced plans to produce Athlon-based servers if and when an SMP chipset for Athlon appears.
This is significant, Insight 64's Brookwood says, because AMD will likely face an uphill struggle for recognition among enterprise IT managers.
"The people who buy servers tend to be a bit more conservative than people who buy desktop systems for home use," he observes. "AMD is going to have to do some credibility building in those market segments, although they certainly have the raw material with regard to the product to do that."
Hoyle Anderson, a systems administrator with a major Boston-based financial firm, likes the idea of an SMP system with Athlon instead of Intel inside.
"I'm very anxious to get my hands on [an Athlon-based server], especially a multi-CPU system because the Alpha bus they used is very well done," he says. "We have some very high-end applications we're working on developing that require a lot of horsepower, and response time is very important."
Despite the praise, Anderson embodies the problems AMD will have in penetrating the glass house. He won’t consider deploying Athlon-based systems until they are distributed by established enterprise vendors.
"My main concern is that we are pretty much committed to HP and Compaq server hardware," Anderson says. "For me to deploy an Athlon, it would have to be OEMed by one of those companies."
AMD's Smith says the company is talking to the major server vendors about Athlon-based SMP servers. He says there is one major difference between AMD’s previous production problems and the company’s current circumstances.
"In the past, it was always an issue of delivering a competitive [CPU] frequency in step with Intel," Smith contends. "Now we're on a process that's not being pushed to deliver the competitive frequency because we're the frontrunner."