The balance of power will be restored between X64 chip rivals Intel and Advanced Micro Devices as AMD today launches its quad-core 'Barcelona' Opteron processors.
The global launch events will include one at the Lucas Theater in San Francisco. George Lucas's LucasFilm, which brought us the Star Wars and Indiana Jones blockbusters, is among the first companies to have Barcelona in production - in its case, for digital rendering.
Considering how well Intel has executed in the past 18 months as it has moved from its old NetBurst architecture, from the Pentium 4, to the Core architecture, based on its Pentium mobile processors, while at the same time doubling and then quadrupling the core count in each processor socket, there is a bit of electricity in the air as the empire is most definitely striking back against the rebel upstart.
By being more conservative in its engineering, Intel has been able to cram two dual-core Core-style Xeon processors into a single socket, and has been able to more quickly revamp its processor line that it would have been able to had it created true quad-core designs, such as AMD's new Barcelona variants of the Rev F dual-core processors that were announced in August 2006.
For very valid technical reasons, AMD decided to go with a true quad-core design, using the time to rework the cores, the on-chip memory controller, and other features to improve support for floating point math and server virtualisation, among other things.
But that extra engineering cost time, and for whatever reason, the Barcelona chip that was supposed to ship to AMD's OEM customers in June of this year did not start shipping for revenue until August. Intel's quad-core 'Clovertown' Xeon 5300 chips for two-socket servers are arguably less elegant than the Barcelona equivalents, but they started shipping in November 2006, and last week Intel launched the Core-based 'Tigerton' Xeon 7300 chips for four-socket and larger servers, just to try to steal some thunder - and some business - from AMD's Barcelona. To date, Intel has shipped millions of quad-core server processors, and AMD is just getting started.
The question now is whether the technology inside the Barcelona chips is sufficient to steal back some market share in the quad-core server space. And if it is not sufficient, then the next logical question is just how low will prices go as these two rivals compete for business among capacity-hungry data centres that are looking to do more within the same thermal envelope or to drop their thermals and shrink their server counts and get the same work done.
After having lost two of its top marketing people - Henri Richard, chief sales and marketing officer, and Rick Hegberg, senior vice president of worldwide sales - just ahead of the Barcelona launch, AMD is obviously trying to ramp up excitement for the product as it tries to figure out how to sell it against Intel's products.
And this is a much tougher task now that Intel has closed the performance and performance per watt gap that it left wide open for AMD to shoot through four years ago.
"We really think this is a game-changing product," says Pat Patla, director of Opteron marketing at AMD. "The Barcelona launch is as significant as the original Opteron. While the Rev E and Rev F chips were neat products, they represented a doubling up of existing technology. But Barcelona has a new core, a new architecture, and delivers performance per watt leadership."
The first generation of Opteron processors, which came to market in April 2003, were significant because they were the first X86-compatible chips with 64-bit main memory extensions. By beating Intel to market with 64-bit memory on its own architecture, AMD was able to eventually line up OEM server partners and gain a substantial market share in the server business.
Intel switched gears in early 2005, adding 64-bit memory extensions, and in 2006 the company rallied around the Pentium Mobile core as the future of its product line. Since that time, Intel has made PC, workstation, and server variants of these so-called Core processors, first making dual-core versions of the chips and then putting two dual-core chips in a single package to make quad-core chips.
AMD was first to market with dual-core X64 chips with the Rev E chips, and added DDR2 main memory support and other virtualisation features with the launch of the Rev F chips last August, but has lagged Intel in the core count.
With performance increases per socket coming solely from increasing numbers of core these days - raising clock speeds is verboten because of the heat that produces - AMD really needed to have quad-core chips in the field last year, when Rev Fs were first shipping.
That way, it would have been ahead of Intel once again, not behind.
But, you cannot win them all.
AMD has been dribbling out the technical details on the Barcelona Opterons for the past year, and not much has remains to be said except for the speeds and prices of the chips. A brief recap of the details is in order nonetheless.
First and foremost, Barcelona is a Rev F chip, which means it plugs into the same 1207-pin sockets as other Rev F chips and, because the thermals for these quad-core chips are essentially the same as those of existing dual-core chips, there is no reason to worry about extra heat. (This is due to the shift from 90 nanometer to 65 nanometer chip making processes by AMD; when you shrink transistors, you can add more stuff to the chip and not get any hotter.)
The Barcelona chips include a 2 MB L3 cache, helping to keep hungry cores fed. Each core has its own 512 KB L2 cache as well. The chip includes two 72-bit ports from the integrated memory controller out to DDR2 main memory, which can run at 667 MHz. Each chip also has three 8 GB/sec HyperTransport links, which are used to connect processors together in SMP shared-memory systems and to talk to I/O devices.
The chips also have a feature called nested page table acceleration, which is an extension to the hardware-assisted virtualisation feature known as AMD-V (and formerly known by its code-name, 'Pacifica').
AMD-V made its first appearance in the dual-core Rev F chips last August, and implements in hardware some of the things that hypervisors had to do in software; this feature is now called rapid virtualisation indexing.
On the power management front, the chips include Dual Dynamic Power Management, the cores and the memory circuits have their own feeds rather than the shared power feed of prior Rev E and Rev F designs. Another feature called Cool Core allows unused components of the chips to be put to sleep.
For example, the floating point units in a machine that is just running a Web server will deactivate, and for reads and writes in main memory, the memory controller on the chip only powers on read or write logic circuits when it is doing a read or a write.
In prior designs, the floating point and memory circuits were on all the time, whether or not they were being used.
Now, on to the speeds and prices. The standard Barcelona parts are available at a top speed of 2 GHz today, with 2,3 GHz and 2,5 GHz parts coming out in the fourth quarter as AMD ramps up production on its 65 nanometer process. (Patla says that AMD is ahead of plan on yields, so whatever was delaying the Barcelonas for the past few months had to do with the chip, not the factory.)
Because customers are more concerned with performance per watt these days, AMD is focusing on delivering standard Barcelonas, which fit into the 95 watt thermal design point (TDP) as well as so-called highly efficient parts, or Opteron HEs, that run at a lower voltage and use less juice and generate less heat.
AMD has Barcelona HE parts running at 1,9 GHz today, and will scale up clock speeds in the fourth quarter.
For customers who need the most performance and who do not care about heat, AMD is still making the Opteron Special Edition (SE) chips, which clock at 2,3 GHz and higher and which have a 120 watt TDP. (AMD is also going to introduce a new method of calculating thermals for the Barcelonas, which we will cover separately.)
In the two-socket server and workstation space, the standard Barcelona parts are the Opteron 2347, which runs at 1,9 GHz and costs $316 in 1000-unit quantities, and the Opteron 2350, which runs at 2 GHz and costs $389. There are actually three Opteron 2000 series chips with the HE designation.
The Opteron 2347 HE runs at 1,9 GHz and costs $377, the Opteron 2346 HE runs at 1,8 GHz and costs $255, and the Opteron 2344 HE runs at 1,7 GHz and costs $209. These HE chips are less than half the cost of HE variants in the Rev E generation two years ago, and considering that AMD is only charging a nominal premium for HE parts now, it seems likely that the HE chips are going to be the main weapon that the company tries to use against Intel. (Shifting volume production toward lower-voltage parts could have been why the Barcelonas were delayed.)
On the four-socket front, the regular Barcelona parts are the Opteron 8350, running at 2 GHz and costing $1019, and the Opteron 8347, running at 1,9 GHz and costing $786. There are also two HE variants of the Barcelonas, the Opteron 8347 HE, running at 1,9 GHz and costing $873 and the Opteron 8346 HE, running at 1,8 GHz and costing $698.
The pricing on the Barcelona chips is aggressive, especially considering that performance increases compared to dual-core Rev F chips are in the range of 35% to 50%, depending on the workload. Moreover, the equivalent Barcelona HE parts running at 1,8 GHz or 1,9 GHz with a 68 watt TDP have the same price as Rev F parts running at close to 3 GHz and rated at the higher 95 watt TDP. This will represent a substantial improvement in bang for the buck per watt, which AMD is trading off because it cannot ramp the Barcelonas above 2 GHz yet. This is a reasonable tactic, and more importantly, it is about the only one that AMD has to try to steal some sales from Intel.
The 'Budapest' variants of these quad-core chips, which plug into single-socket Rev F slots as well as into the 940-pin AM2 slot for desktops and entry workstations, are not going to be ready until the first quarter of 2008.