AMD Nabs Chip Hotshot, Challenges Intel to Dual-Core Duel
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
The Intel Developer Forum may be raging in San Francisco this week, but Advanced Micro Devices did its best to try to steal a little thunder away from its chip-making rival by announcing it had hired away yet another hotshot system designer from IBM to help it plan its future chip cores, system architectures, and manufacturing processes. AMD is also talking a tiny bit about its more near-term multicore chip strategy.
AMD has lured Jeff VerHeul, a 25-year IBMer, to be its new vice president of silicon design. VerHeul most recently created IBM's fledgling Engineering and Technology Services business, which sells as a service the kind of chip-making expertise that IBM develops for its various Power processors. In fact, AMD is one of IBM's flagship customers for the ETS unit, which is probably how AMD came to know him. VerHeul will lead the development of all future AMD computing solutions, according to a company statement, including chip roadmaps and design projects across all of AMD's engineering sites. AMD keeps the name of its key technical people out of the limelight, and the company didn't want to discuss who VerHeul replaced, and seemed only to bring it up as a means to show that a very serious systems and chip guy was now in charge of the AMD product lines out beyond 2007. Back in the late 1990s, when IBM was working on the Regatta server platform and the Power4 chip, the first dual-core processor brought to market, VerHeul was vice president of server and workstation development at IBM's Server Group. It doesn't get more serious than that.
VerHeul was undoubtedly a key player in the inking of a technology partnership between IBM and AMD that has allowed the latter to accelerate its adoption of advanced chip-making processes and improve its yields--a key differentiator that has allowed it to fight tooth-and-nail against Intel.
Back in April, AMD announced that Rich Oehler, a former IBM system designer who was working for Newisys on a 32-way chipset for the Opterons code-named "Horus," had been enticed away from that subsidiary of Sanmina-SCI. Oehler also has a pretty strong pedigree in that he was the lead designer for IBM's Power family of chips for many years and was also one of the key designers of the "Summit" family of chipsets Big Blue created to make scalable, SMP-NUMA hybrid servers based on Intel's Xeon and Itanium processors. Oehler has been working on processor and server designs at IBM for decades, and is still at AMD.
While not being specific about what VerHeul and Oehler are up to, Pat Patla, director of server and workstation marketing at AMD, said that VerHeul will be taking over the development of the next generation of AMD cores and system technologies, and by this he did not mean the multicore chips that AMD has in the pipeline for 2007 or so. "These are the things that are still on the white board, things that don't even have a code name and certainly not a part number yet," explained Patla. He said that Oehler has been working on system designs, and reiterated the obvious fact that with the Opteron chip having an embedded memory controller and HyperTransport links for ganging them up together into SMP and NUMA clusters, AMD has had to think in terms of systems.
Patla would not be drawn out too much on AMD's multicore plans, except to say that the Opteron processors were designed to support more than two cores from the get-go and that AMD would ship processors with more than two cores in 2007. When asked if he believed that AMD would get to multicores (he would not say four cores, but this is obviously what everyone expects) ahead of Intel, which is also slated to roll out multicore Itaniums and Xeon in the 2007 timeframe, Patla laughed and said, "We can only hope so." He didn't sound like a man who was laughing because he was worried.
What AMD seems to be mulling right now is the interplay between cores, HyperTransport links, and SMP and NUMA scalability. To boost the scalability of machines further, AMD can double the cores and add enough HyperTransport links to take an Opteron server configuration up quite a bit, even without resorting to the Horus chipset. The current Opteron 8000 chipset can take four two-socket SMPs and lash them together with NUMA clustering over HyperTransport to make an eight-way server. For whatever reason, no Tier One server vendor has done this to date, but a number of smaller ones have. (The NUMA scalability is not great.) But now that AMD has dual-core Opterons, companies with four-socket servers can boost their performance without resorting to four-node NUMA clustering, and get more performance in the same thermal and physical profile. AMD could do something interesting for its far-future Opterons, like making multiple parallel HyperTransport links available between future Opteron chips, each with maybe four cores or eight cores with perhaps two or four links per core, to boost the aggregate bandwidth between the cores and create a switched mess network between all of the cores in the box. Whatever AMD might be planning, no one is saying.
And AMD is not all that worried about getting into the big SMP and NUMA server markets--at least not yet. "We need to make our mark on the two-way and four-way server space, and do it now," explains Patla. "This is the volume market, and we need to compete here. But that said, we do have our eye on the market for larger machines, and when we really expand into eight-way and maybe above, we will do it in a volume-market way."
And because it is IDF this week, and Intel is talking up its dual-core and multicore plans for the second time this year and getting a huge amount of airtime in the IT market, AMD has thrown down the gauntlet and launched an ad campaign that is challenging Intel to a shoot-out in the Dual Core Corral. AMD has taken out big ads in major newspapers saying it would meet Intel any time, any place to test its Pentium and Xeon chips against AMD's own Athlon and Opterons. Intel has thus far dodged the issue, and at IDF, Intel's new CEO said he thought that products are "best judged in the marketplace."
Then again, he would have to say that, being the CEO of a chip monopoly, because in many benchmark tests that might be run in a shoot-out, Intel's dual core chips are going to get whupped by their AMD equivalents. The market would, indeed, decide, all other things being equal. But, of course, all other things are not equal. While Hewlett-Packard offers Opteron across a pretty broad range of servers and in one workstation, IBM offers only tepid support (one blade server and one rack-server), Sun has only two servers and a few workstations (but is readying its "Galaxy" Opteron-based servers for a September 12 launch), and Dell, Fujitsu-Siemens, and NEC have not gone anywhere near Opteron for servers, and get uncomfortable talking about any possibilities.