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AMD high efficiency Opteron chips push the thermal envelope

Bridget Botelho

As expected, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) introduced new high efficiency Opteron processor models with the same heat and power requirements as the company's forthcoming quad core "Barcelona" processor.

AMD offers chips in three power/thermal bands; 120Ws, 95Ws and 68Ws. The newest dual-core processor models 1218 HE, 2218 HE and 8218 HE are now available in both "high efficiency" 68W and mainstream 95W thermal envelopes or maximum power draw.

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The new HE models bring reduced thermal benefits over previous AMD Opteron 1000 series processors to users who want to increase density, but need to reduce their data center power and cooling bills.

Rising energy costs have made reducing power consumption an important imperative in data centers worldwide, not just in regions with high utility rates, like the West Coast and Japan.

Today's Opteron upgrades are available at previous model prices, and older model pricing will drop.

Power vs. performance?

"We've expected AMD to come out with some improvements and wondered what kind of performance boost it would bring, and looking at this, it appears pretty competitive," said Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT, Inc in Hayward, Calif.

But in IT, as elsewhere, there is no free lunch.

"Lower power is always attractive -- the kicker is what you have to give up to get there -- performance," said Gordon Haff, principal IT analyst at Illuminata Inc., a research firm in Nashua, N.H. "All other things being equal, lower power parts typically run at a lower frequency and may also have smaller caches or give up other features that help performance."

But AMD promises users better performance per watt and price/performance for mainstream server and workstation customers with these new processors. Models 2220 and 8220 (2.8 GHz) are now available in the 95W maximum thermal design power, as is the Opteron processor Model 1220.

All of the new processors include "AMD PowerNow!" energy-saving technology, which "throttles down" the CPU when it is idle, reducing energy consumption by as much as 75%, AMD reported.

Opteron's "Direct Connect Architecture" helps performance by eliminating the bottleneck effect that slows traditional processors down, the company explained.

The Intel and AMD rivalry continues

Intel Corp. was first to introduce quad core for mainstream x86 servers and workstations last year, and the $38.8 billion company is working to improve its quad core today, said Erica L. Fields, Intel server spokesperson.

On Nov. 14, Intel introduced its quad-core Intel Xeon 5300 and Intel Core2 Extreme quad-core processor families, and on Jan. 8, the chip giant formally introduced three more quad-core processors, including the quad-core Intel Xeon Processor 3200 series for single-socket servers.

"We have a broad portfolio of quad-core products with the majority of them at 80Ws, (and) we do have one top-bin SKU at 120Ws, that delivers record breaking performance. We will be introducing a low-voltage version of our quad-core server products in the coming months," Fields said.

If AMD is bothered by Intel's lead in getting quad core on the market, it never let on. The company appears to be pacing itself with a slow and steady tactic, biding its time as software catches up to the technology.

"The adoption of quad-core technology will lag until the software catches up, so we aren't too concerned about Intel's lead, or rather, their perceived lead," said Steve Demski, AMD's Opteron product manager. "It isn't as big as it's made out to be."

Intel claims the up-take on its quad-core technology has been good so far though, pointing to Sun Microsystems Inc.'s decision to offer Intel-based servers as a sign of success, Fields said.

Sun used to offer exclusively AMD chips for its x86 Galaxy line, but gave in to customer demands and announced it plans to offer Intel in January.

"(Sun) chose Intel because of the performance and energy efficiency of Intel's quad-core products that are available today, and our future products," Fields said.

Months prior to Sun's headline-grabbing decision to partner with Intel, Dell Inc. added AMD chips to some of its servers, ending the exclusive relationship it had with Intel in the server space.

And so the duel between the two chipmakers persists.

"Intel did beat AMD out of the gate with quad core, (but) the expectation is that AMD's quad-core processors will be faster when they arrive," Haff said. "This is a game of technical leapfrog. Especially in the server space, quad core does deliver increased application level performance for most workloads, and that's what users care about."

When AMD releases its quad-core processors, it will feature significant core enhancements, and the company estimates a whopping 40% performance advantage over Intel's current quad-core offerings.

The performance projection estimate is based on findings from a SPECfr_rate2000 report and internal AMD simulations.

Intel is, predictably, skeptical of the projections.

"As for their 40% claims on their future product, Intel is walking the walk and we will let the competition talk the talk," Fields said. "We are ramping quad-core technology today that delivers leading performance across industry standard benchmarks."

AMD does have reason for its steadfast optimism, with a history of benchmarks placing its processors ahead of Intel's.

For instance, a recent review of AMD Socket-F Opteron processors against Intel's Woodcrest chips by AnandTech Inc., an IT hardware analysis and news company, showed that AMD's Socket-F Opteron excelled in the areas of power consumption and performance per watt by as much as 29%.

The future of x86

As Intel and AMD tout the pros of their respective technologies and undercut one another's achievements ad nauseam, users wonder when they should plan on buying motherboards with quad-core chips.

Pund-IT's King said quad core represents the future of x86 server technology, but that software that can thread its workload across multiple cores or processors won't get up to speed with the quad-core technology until later this year.

"It seems that (Intel) had been running hard to get here, only to find that not many people are waiting around," King said.

"The difficulty in the x86 server market is product fatigue. There are so many choices, and products are being renewed constantly, so users end up buying what they need now, knowing there will be something new in six months," King said.

The rapidly changing x86 server market can be frustrating to users who hear another new technology is in the works, just after they've installed -- and paid for -- the latest and greatest upgrade.

King suggests doing research on the technologies prior to making any investments.

"Whenever a vendor releases a new processor, it is critical for users to speak with their applications vendors to find out when the software will be up to speed. If it won't be for another eight months, there's no point in rushing into the investment," King said.

Server vendors that plan to incorporate the new AMD Opteron processors into their platforms include Dell, Fujitsu Siemens Computers, Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM and Sun, along with platform providers, such as Appro International Inc., Cray Inc., Rackable Systems Inc. and Verari Systems Inc. Check out the pricing information.


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