Oct 09 2008

Coming to a Server Near You

AMD and Intel up the ante in their face-off to bring multicore processors to market.

The chip war continues between Intel and Advanced Micro Devices; while Intel is still the clear leader, AMD is more ambitious than ever.

AMD’s 12-core processor, targeted for the server market, is expected to ship in the first half of 2010. This new processor is a deviation from the planned eight-core chip. The 12-core processor — code-named Magny-Cours — will include 12 megabytes of Level 3 cache and will support DDR3 RAM. AMD is making modifications to the processor that will help it compete more effectively in the server market.

“Twelve-core chips will handle larger workloads better than eight-core chips and are easier to manufacture,” says Randy Allen, senior vice president for the Computing Solutions Group at AMD.

AMD is also planning to release a six-core processor in 2010 to complement the 12-core. The six-core chip will be designed to meet the requirements of systems that do not need 12 cores. Code-named Sao Paulo, this chip will include 6MB of L3 cache and will also support DDR3 RAM. AMD will manufacture the new chips using a 45-nanometer process (already used by Intel for its current processors), which should increase power efficiency.

Dean McCarron, an analyst and owner of Mercury Research, says AMD took into account financial and technical considerations when deciding to jump from six-core chips to 12-core. McCarron adds that doubling the size of the chips will let AMD include more cores on each chip while delivering better product margins and lowering manufacturing costs. AMD's 12-core chip will contain two six-core processors on individual chips in a single processor package, he says. That is a more reasonable goal than including 12 cores on a single chip, which is more expensive to manufacture, he adds.

Soon Intel will ship a six-core Xeon server processor tagged Dunnington; only later will Intel shift to an eight-core processor. Intel shipped nearly 79 percent of all chips sold in the first quarter of this year, while AMD held a 21 percent market share, a slight gain from the 19 percent market share it held in the first quarter of 2007.

Meanwhile, Intel plans to launch its long-awaited Tukwila processor — the next-generation 65-nanometer Itanium processor. Tukwila has four cores, 30MB total cache, QuickPath Interconnect, a dual integrated memory controller and mainframe-class reliability, availability, serviceability (RAS) features. It will be the world's first microprocessor with 2 billion transistors; Intel estimates that it will deliver more than double the performance of the current generation of Itanium processors. Intel has tagged Tukwila for production toward the end of 2008 or early in 2009.

Intel demonstrated Tukwila at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ International Solid-State Circuits Conference earlier this year. The processor has three times as many transistors as the current Intel dual-core Itanium 9000 (dubbed Montvale). Some reports claim Tukwila will have a thermal design power of 170 watts. The current generation has a TDP of 104 watts, down from the 130 watts of earlier Itanium chips.

With so many new processors and technologies coming from both AMD and Intel, the next few years in the server market will likely be intense. IBM is at work on new server chips as well, including one that could help with energy efficiency: a photonic chip, which promises to accelerate performance while using significantly less energy.