Hardware Today: The Chip Wars Rage On

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Nov 27, 2006

Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, an empire named Intel dominated the server-chip galaxy. But the rebels of AMD struck back and gained strength. Analysts lauded AMD's powers, and it seemed only a matter of time before the chipmaker would come to rule the galaxy ...

Is the Intel empire about to strike back?

The real chips wars are never that simple, however. AMD has gained big leads in 64-bit and dual-core technology only to see Intel rapidly close the gap. Performance per watt has been a battleground owned completely by AMD. Yet, here too, Intel may well have caught the pacesetting AMD chips. And in 2007, Intel is threatening to be first to market with quad-core models.

"With Intel's newest 'Woodcrest' chip, it now has a comparable chip to offer customers," says Jed Scaramella, a server analyst at IDC. "Intel states that the new chip boosts server performance by as much as three times compared to the fastest single-core Intel Xeon server, yet it also increases energy efficiency by more than three times."

Darth Xeon

Like something out of a George Lucas script, for a while the future looked bleak for Intel. After more than a decade of monopolizing the x86 server market and closing its eyes, AMD changed the rules. Instead of Moore's Law uber alles, users were drawn to a different tune. AMD seduced users with its performance-per-watt mantra. In this playground, it virtually left Intel for dead. IDC reported AMD owned 15 percent of the server space in second-quarter 2006, while Gartner countered with a figure of 25 percent of the U.S. sector. Either way, that's double the share of one year ago.

There may well have been a significant shift in the force, however, since the release of Woodcrest in June. Intel recently refreshed its entire server processor line with a distinct focus on performance per watt.

At the low end is the single-processor Xeon 3000 series. Formerly a Pentium chip, the 3000 series now uses a Xeon dual-core chip.

"The Pentium was really a desktop technology that some [OEMs] used for small servers," says Jason Waxman, director of Xeon marketing at Intel. "The Xeon 3000 now gives them a good price point and much higher reliability."

The Xeon 5000 DP (dual-processor) series also employs dual-core silicon. Intel released the 5100 processor Woodcrest this summer with a core microarchitecture fund in desktop, mobile and server chips. It aims for high performance at low power and works well as a Web server, file and print server, or database server.

"The Xeon 5100 is 50 to 60 percent of what we ship," says Waxman. "We are about to further enhance that platform with the quad-core Xeon 5300 this quarter."

He says it will have the same power envelope as the 5100 with double the performance. Codenamed Clovertown, the Xeon 5100 provides four cores in a single socket. As it is a dual-processor chip, that makes for a total of eight cores.

In the multi-processor (MP) category, the Xeon 7000 MP series has been updated with the 7100 (Tulsa) chip. It provides 16 MB of cache on the die and is touted as being good for consolidation and virtualization.

Chancellor Palp-Itanium

Xeon's star has been rising, but the same can't be said for Itanium. According to IDC, Itanium unit volumes decreased significantly during the past year. As though abandoning the Republic in its darkest hour, vendor after vendor has turned its back on Intel's 64-bit architecture. IBM and Dell killed it, SGI filed for bankruptcy, and Fujitsu is focusing on SPARC. That leaves HP as the last one standing.

Far from throwing in the towel, however, Intel has embarked upon a new wave of Itanium innovation (which it also calls its 9000 series chip). This began with the release of the 90 nanometer (nm) dual-core Montecito with four threads per processor. It has more than 1.7 billion transistors, 24 MB L3 cache, and hardware-based virtualization support. According to Intel, the 9000 series doubles performance and improves the performance per watt by 2.5 times compared to the single-core version.

"The Itanium 2 9000 series offers higher reliability as it can recover from cache errors that other chips can't," says Waxman.

He also notes a development pipeline stretching two years into the future. This includes the Montvale, which is due out next year, and the Tukwila, which is due out in 2008. The latter will have quad (or more) cores and will share a common platform architecture with Xeon.

Opter-On Kenobi

Clearly, Intel has made strides in recent months. Maybe it's even made up all the lost ground and moved ahead — that remains to be seen. But the company has a major public relations problem to overcome after a two-year hammering in the public arena.

"Opteron servers have gained favor with certain customer segments who value price/performance and/or performance per watt," says Scaramella. "Customer perception is that AMD has better thermal characteristics over Xeon making it more suitable for high-density environments and HPC workloads."

Case in point: Intel's technological progress of late was largely overshadowed by the simple act of Dell announcing its break with tradition with the addition of a couple of Opteron-powered systems. No longer was Dell an exclusively Intel bastion. IBM poured further fuel on the fire by broadening its Opteron-based System x servers.

And on the technical front, AMD hasn't exactly been sitting back twiddling its transistors. During the course of the year, it released incremental upgrades to Opteron chips in its three main lines: the 1000 series (1-way), 2000 series (up to 2-way) and 8000 series (4- and 8-way).

"We are shipping a record number of Opteron chips and posting record revenues," says Kishna Weaver, Opteron product manager at AMD. "We have introduced different power bands for our processors that offer various levels of performance or performance per watt."

While AMD positions this as a positive, a quick glance at its product portfolio may convince you otherwise. Gone is the simplicity that marked the early charts of AMD server chips. In its place is a complex array of categories such as standard, High Efficiency (HE) for low-power models and SE, for even higher performance and higher power.

"Performance per watt became hot a couple of years ago, though not everybody wants it," says Weaver. "Some customers just want more performance, and [for them] power consumption is not as big a concern."

The Dark Side of Performance per Watt

Interestingly, low power for AMD is now not as low as before. The company used to boast about having a 55 watt product. That is gone, replaced by a low of 68 watts.

Why the shift?

"Customers determined that 68 watts was the right balance," says Weaver. "Standard for Opteron is now 99 watts."

Unfortunately, AMD may have made the mistake of following Intel's lead in a negative sense — Intel generally serves up complexity in its server chip spec sheets.

And, now, AMD has followed suit.

So how do the competing processors line up in terms of wattage? In addition to 68 watt and 99 watt versions, AMD has SE versions in the 120- to 125 watt range.

One type of Xeon 5100, meanwhile, is 65 watts (a year ago, it was 120 watts for a single core processor), and a Xeon 7100 model is 95 watts.

"Low watts and low power is not a good combination," says Intel's Waxman. "We now offer a 60 percent performance per watt advantage over Opteron."

But a closer look at the Intel spec sheet reveals that there are others in the 5000 and 7000 categories that go down as low as 40 watts and up as high as 150 watts. So it is hard to tell who is really "winning." All that can be determined is that Intel has made considerable progress, and users must test products in their specific environments to determine the best fit.

Making the waters even murkier is the fact that each side counts processor wattage differently. AMD uses maximum wattage as the metric, whereas Intel uses an industry metric known as Thermal Design Power (TDP), which is the average amount of power consumed, typically 11 percent below maximum.

Fortunately, an apples-to-apples comparison may soon be possible. AMD is thinking about switching to TDP, according to Weaver.

Quad Core — A New Hope?

As noted earlier, Intel has a quad-core product named Clovertown about to hit the market. AMD, on the other hand, is taking its time with the release of Barcelona, its quad chip it expects to release in mid-2007.

"We are not just adding more cores, we are enhancing the cores too," says Weaver. "We are also adding L3 cache, better memory handling and reducing the wattage from 95 to 85 watts."

Initially, quad core is targeted at the 2000 and 8000 series products. By the end of 2007, a 1000 series chip named Budapest is scheduled to appear. By that time, Intel will have supplemented Clovertown with a 4-way quad-core processor codenamed Caneland.

"Intel has an approach that allows earlier time to market, while AMD prefers monolithic implementations, which means they'll be out later," says Dean McCarron, an analyst at Mercury Research of Cave Creek, Ariz. "The fireworks will probably start around 3Q 2007 and go full blast over the first half of 2008; in the meantime expect each vendor to tout their approach as being the right one."

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