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2/18/2010
09:41 AM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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Server Den: AMD Emphasizes Energy Efficient Opterons

Our columnist interviews AMD chief marketing officer Nigel Dessau, who talks about the scrappy chip vendor's upcoming processors, the four stages of virtualization, and why scale-out servers could be the platform of the future.

This week's Server Den steps back from the systems side to take a look at one of the processors which powers it all. I'm talking about AMD's Opteron, which famously shook up the category when it launched in 2003 as the industry's first 32/64-bit architecture. Opteron is even more notable for its groundbreaking jettisoning of the front-side bus in favor of direct connectivity between the CPU and memory and I/O.

I'm going to dive into my interview with Nigel Dessau [picture at right], AMD's chief marketing officer, soon, but first some background. The middle years of the last decade, when AMD was widely acknowledged to have achieved a lead in server processor performance, has since receded into a more traditional neck-in-neck battle. In 2009, Intel reset the bar with Nehalem. AMD parried with its new "Istanbul" Opterons.

Currently, AMD is attacking the server space on both the performance and energy efficiency fronts. At the high end, AMD is readying its Opteron 6100 series processor, aka Magny-Cours, which will come in eight- and 12-core versions. Power savings are spotlighted in the Opteron 4100 series, due this quarter. As I discussed in my recent interview with HP, reining in electricity costs may not be sexy, but it's the largest--and most easily addressed--item on the checklist for anyone buying servers, so this is a smart play on AMD's part.

It's good to see AMD moving forward as a continuing processor player. Its ongoing and healthy market presence might not have been predicted if one had been paying close attention to its challenged financial results over the past several years. However, the company put itself on a revived footing in 2009. That was accomplished by spinning off its chip manufacturing operation into a separate company called GlobalFoundries.

As well, AMD received a $1.25 billion payment from Intel in settlement of the two companies' ongoing patent and antitrust disputes.

The upshot is, AMD now appears well positioned as an intellectual property (IP) creator of desktop, server and mobile processors. Actually, that IP perspective is my take on the situation. In our interview, Dessau emphasized the marketing angle. Here's an excerpt of our chat:

InformationWeek: Where is AMD focused?

Nigel Dessau: The answer today is completely different from the answer you'd have gotten a year ago. We're a fundamentally different company. I think of us as the Nike of the computer processor market. If you think about Nike, they design shoes and they sell and market them. We design processors, and we sell and market them.

We're focus on the user scenarios. In the notebook space it's, what can we do to make the client's fit the people's lifestyle? In the server space, it's what can we do to reset the economics of the server market to help give people who buy 2P servers get some of the benefits of the 4P world for cloud-type applications? And in the graphics and gaming world, it's about how we can alter the visual experience.

InformationWeek: Let's talk about the server space.

Dessau: There are three key statements if you look at servers from a technology side--there's single socket, dual socket, and 4P/8P. However, if you look at it from an application and usage point of view, you see a slightly different picture.

You see that the largest single element is people buying basic infrastructure, such as file and print servers. They're running applications such as SAP, ERP, business systems, etc. And people are now starting to build out cloud environments. Finally, there's the high-performance computing segment.

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