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Users await AMD's 12-core processor and more competition with Intel

Data center pros eagerly await AMD's new 12-core processor and hope it will awaken the x86 server race with Intel.

IT professionals want Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) to give Intel a run for its money in x86 server processors, but they're not necessarily willing to jump ship to the underdog chipmaker.

"When I think of AMD, I think of the consumer market," said Scott Rowe, the director in the CTO office at Emdeon, a Nashville, Tenn.-based healthcare company. Emdeon, which Rowe calls an Intel shop, also has some IBM Power-based servers, mostly running AIX and some Linux.

Indeed, most PC makers offer AMD-based laptop and PC models, and many observers now expect AMD's second-generation Athlon Neo and Turion processors to make a splash in ultraportable PCs. But AMD remains a distant also-ran in the server room. While always lagging Intel in market share, AMD has a reputation for beating Intel to market with faster, higher core-count processors.

More healthy Intel-AMD competition
Whether they will actually sign on the dotted line for new AMD processors, data center professionals are eagerly awaiting AMD's new releases. For his part, while Rowe would like to see competition in x86 servers -- a healthy rivalry keeps processor prices in line -- for now he sees no reason to switch to AMD.

With the release later this quarter of AMD's new 12-core x86 processor, code-named "Magny-Cours," data center plans like Rowe's could change, however, signaling a new AMD push into the server room.

The manager of enterprise infrastructure planning at a Canadian government agency is eager to see the new AMD chip. His data center uses a mix of Intel- and AMD-based Dell servers and buys on a three-year cycle depending on performance and price. The agency hasn't yet bought any Intel Nehalem-based servers, and so he's eager to compare Nehalem with Magny-Cours.

"Competition is always good," the manager said. "Having more than one choice is always good. When AMD came out with the dual-core [Opteron], our server prices went down. Hopefully that can happen again with the new chip."

AMD, whose Opteron dual-core chip once had about a quarter of the x86 server market in 2006, has seen its market share dwindle. According to IDC, it held 14.4% market share in the server/workstation market in mid-2008. But IDC's numbers for the third quarter of 2009 indicate that AMD's share in that segment had decreased to 9.6%.

The 12-core Magny-Cours processor is expected in March, and AMD plans to follow it with the release of a 16-core chip (code-named "Interlagos") in 2011. Both will be part of the Opteron 6000 series of chips designed for data center servers. Intel released the quad-core model of its Nehalem processor in 2009 with plans for six- and eight-core versions by the end of March.

And the battle between the two x86 server chipmakers isn't limited to fabrication plants. In 2005, just as AMD made a splash with its dual-core Opteron, it sued Intel for engaging in unfair competition. In November, Intel agreed to pay AMD $1.25 billion to settle the case, and the two now have a five-year cross-licensing deal.

But for those who might want to mix-and-match AMD and Intel servers, virtualization could pose a problem. James Staten, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., recently wrote that live virtual server migrations between AMD and Intel servers are incompatible.

Diminishing returns on number of cores?
So too IT professionals question whether an ever-increasing number of cores is a categorically good thing. While Intel and AMD continue to boost the number of processor cores in their chips, end users wonder whether that's always a good idea. As has been the case since quad-core chips came on the market, users must consider their applications when upgrading to multicore processors.

The IT manager at the Canadian governmental agency said that they have been virtualizing their servers using VMware, but accommodating a 12-core chip could be challenging because the company would have to stuff it with memory to handle all the virtual machines.

"There's a point of diminishing returns, and I'm not sure if 12 cores is too much," he said.

Mark Fontecchio can be reached at

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