Is AMD About to Launch New 50-Core, 100-Core Servers?

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Most consumers think about AMD as “the other option” in their desktops and notebooks, and as a gamer-friendly (just look at Steam’s hardware survey) platform to get their game on. It’s easy to forget their strong offerings in the server market, where competition is just as fierce (and then some) as anything in the PC world.

Source: Steam user hardware survey

IDC’s recent market survey suggests that the server market is growing, and strong. According to their Group VP for Enterprise Platforms, Matt Eastwood, they recently had to re-evaluate their worldwide server forecast and raised it by four percent. That’s an additional 1.1 million server shipments over the next four years. Much of the upcoming growth, IDC seems to believe, is going to be in the versatile and compact blade server market.

Further research from IDC, pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article, mentions that revenue from x86-based servers (anything running on Intel’s Xeon or AMD’s Opteron platforms, for instance) jumped 20% in Q4 2009 from Q3, representing a full-on 13% year-over-year boost. AMD is clearly looking to take a piece of that action.

AMD remains competitive in the server space, despite a struggling 9% marketshare. Even their own executives are very frank about the fact that 9% is pretty much what they get for just being an option, let alone a competitive one. Virtualization, now supported quite profoundly in hardware and software, is becoming an increasingly useful tool for data centers. One of the great things that virtualization allows is maximizing efficiency and resources: it scales very well on multiple processing cores. Unfortunately, multi-core servers past 2P, or two physical processors residing on the same board, are typically out of reach without spending a substantial amount of money.

Given some comments made by a few employees, it looks like they’re trying to change that.

“We will remove the 4P tax.” – Nigel Dessau, CMO

“The 4P tax has arbitrarily kept the market very small at about five per cent of units and shrinking.” – Leslie Sobon, VP of Product and Platform Marketing

“The 4P tax has arbitrarily kept the market very small: that will end VERY soon.” – Phil Hughes, Senior Public Relations Manager

Clearly, AMD is prepping to do something about affordable 4P (and above?) servers in the very near time frame. It wouldn’t be the first time AMD has decided to compete by delivering exceptional performance-per-dollar; their quad-core Athlon IIs won an Editor’s Choice award from DesktopReview last year for that exact reason. In addition, the underdog chip maker has struggled to reinvent their marketing materials to reflect a more value- and intent-driven focus. Their Vision branding strategy – another project of Leslie Sobon’s, coincidentally – reflects this drive.

That’s all well and good, but fifty (well, 48) cores? Let’s take a step back for a minute. AMD already makes 48 core platforms that OEMs like HP, NEC and/or Dell can build out. Some of the top performers on VMWare’s VMMark virtualization benchmark are AMD 48-core servers, in fact. There’s even a 64-core, Intel-based NEC-server on there (although it cant beat AMD’s 48-core option).

Phil Hughes’ Twitter account mentioned the above quote with the hashtag #12coreOpteron. Just a month or so ago, an eBay auction was found with a 12-core AMD server chip for sale, obviously far in advance of any kind of release date. AMD clearly wasn’t prepared to talk about them just yet, but managed to throw up a quick blog post in response:

Production began last month and our OEM partners have been receiving production parts this month. We have had a few select end customer opportunities that have been fulfilled, but it is nothing we can talk about publicly.

So, there it is, we’re building them now, and we expect that you’ll be seeing a launch before the end of the quarter. With 8 or 12 cores, 4 memory channels and lots of other great technology coming, it’s worth the wait. WELL worth the wait.

Six-core CPUs for the consumer desktops and eight- and twelve-core CPUs for servers – that’s a lot of silicon to be tossing around. So AMD is looking to bring 12-core server processors to market. They’re trying to bring multi-socket server platforms down in price. Eight-socket CPU boards will likely remain the domain of the elite, at least for the moment. Does that mean that we’ll soon be seeing affordable (relative to server markets) 32- and 48-core AMD-based servers? Will we see a less affordable 96-core machine?

AMD has a small enough marketshare that they can play around with what Intel might consider a risky move without too much worry. They’re really standing on the cusp – behind them lies continued obscurity, ahead of them lies increased marketshare. We’ve lived through battles for clock speed, battles for power efficiency and battles for mindshare. Could we be gearing up to enter the battle for core density? AMD and Intel seem to think so, and it’s interesting to think about what lies on the other side.




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