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AMD builds new Opteron x86 chips for memory-heavy apps

Even if data center managers now use Intel, they may be ready to consider AMD's new eight- and 12-core processors, which are built for virtualization and other memory-hungry tasks.

With its new multicore x86 Opteron processor for two- and four-socket servers, AMD hopes to attract IT pros focused on virtualization, database work and other memory-intensive applications. And many of these IT pros, even some in Intel shops, are willing to consider the new Opteron, code-named "Magny Cours."

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This week Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Advanced Micro Devices Inc. launched 10 new Opteron chips ranging in price from the eight-core, 2 GHz, 80-watt chip for $266 to the 12-core, 2.3 GHz, 105-watt chip for $1,386. End users said the new chips are worth evaluating, but in many cases it's too early to move to large multicore chips.

"As with all new technologies, we would be interested in doing our own benchmarking to evaluate [Magny-Cours]," said Matthew Leeds, the vice president of operations at Gracenote, an Emeryville, Calif.-based digital media software company. "Right now the Intel 5500 family appears to be the sweet spot for us, in part due to the support for faster memory… and more technical aspects in terms of speed of random-memory scans and so on."

Still, Leeds expects that he'll compare the Intel and AMD offerings in the coming months.

AMD's Opteron vs. Intel Xeon
With its announcement, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD wants to reposition itself as a legitimate competitor to Intel in the x86 server market. Its dual-core In 2006, the Opteron chip earned a quarter of the x86 server market, but since that time, it has seen its market share dwindle. According to IDC, AMD held 14.4% market share in the server/workstation market in mid-2008. But recent IDC numbers indicate that AMD's share in that segment is now about 10%.

Right now the Intel 5500 family appears to be the sweet spot for us.
Matthew Leeds,
VP of operationsGracenote

Often called Nehalem, the Intel 5500 chip is an x86 chip Intel released last year. Intel released a new 5600 line of Nehalems last week and is expected to release the Nehalem EX -- for four-socket systems -- this week. So Leeds estimates that he'll be busy for the foreseeable future.

Pete Sclafani, the CIO of 6Connect Inc., a provider of managed services to data center customers, said that AMD has been considered a "value CPU" for a long time. "In the last three years, customers typically fall into two schools of thought," Sclafani said: "(1) the processor brand is unimportant -- just give me dedicated hardware or (2) the first choice is Intel Xeon [now Nehalem]."

With its new chips, AMD clearly would like to woo companies in the second category.

The four memory channels on the new Opteron chips allow for a total of 12 dual inline memory modules( DIMMs) per socket.

According to Sclafani, both chipmakers' big changes in memory and memory management have made data center computing more efficient.

A better, more memory-packed roadmap?
AMD also wants to level out the cost per socket between two- and four-socket machines. Typically the move to four-socket servers means a big jump in price. According to AMD estimates of the server market in the third quarter of 2009, about 75% of the x86 server market comprised two-socket machines, while only about 5% were four-or-more-socket servers.

In addition to the multicore processor announced today, Later this year, AMD plans to release a four- and six-core chip designed for the one-socket and low-end two-socket market; and next year, it plans to release a 16-core chip for bigger servers, code-named "Interlagos."

Joe Clabby, the president of IT research firm Clabby Analytics, is impressed with the newest AMD Opteron chip.

"Their road delivers more scale ahead of Intel's roadmap," he said. "Their HyperTransport switch offers a 33% increase in CPU speed. They have an integrated memory controller. They can handle a lot more memory than before. They are offering more computing capability within the same envelope that today's processors run. And they are usually lower cost than Intel."

Not everything is rosy in Sunnyvale, though. Even with a $1.25 billion settlement that Intel agreed to pay AMD in the fall because of antitrust claims by AMD, Clabby said that "AMD's financial performance remains its biggest obstacle."

Sclafani said AMD has piqued interest among data center pros but faces a tough, entrenched competitor in Intel.

"I look forward to seeing how AMD keeps the Opteron relevant," Sclafani said. "Intel has been doing well in keeping the price points competitive for processor power and not letting gigahertz be a selling point. In the reports I have seen, AMD six-core chips have provided some additional performance over a Nehalem under certain scenarios, but at a higher power consumption."

Mark Fontecchio can be reached at Barbara Darrow contributed to this report.

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