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8/14/2006
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Next-Generation AMD Opteron Paves The Way For Quad-Core

AMD's first major upgrade to its Opteron server processor includes hardware-assisted virtualization and use of second-generation double data rate memory.

Advanced Micro Devices on Tuesday made the first major upgrade to its successful Opteron server processor. The change will include a shift to a new socket the company says will carry it through next year's conversion to quad-core processors while providing users with hardware-assisted virtualization and use of second-generation double data rate memory for the first time.

The introduction of Opteron Rev-F provides AMD with an enhanced processor platform to battle the gains made by Intel with its recently introduced Woodcrest sever platform, which uses that company's new Core architecture.

In addition, announcements from major server vendors Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Sun Microsystems of new systems based on the next-generation Opteron is expected to significantly expand the total number of server platforms using the AMD processors.

According to Mercury Research, AMD currently has a 26% share of the x86 server processor market, up from 22% in the first quarter. Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64, says AMD should increase that share again in the third and fourth quarters.

To date, HP has led the way in volume shipments of Opteron-based servers. But Sun has seen its AMD-powered server volumes increasing, and IBM has announced five new servers based on the Opteron Rev-F. Dell has also said it will introduce an Opteron-based server for the first time later this year.

"The server makers are jumping into the deep end with full lines of Opteron-based equipment," says Brookwood. "They wouldn't be doing it if end users were telling them not to bother, and those vendors together account for about half of the x86 server market. They're going to be there in spades in the second half."

AMD on Tuesday also announced it has completed the design, or tape-out, of its quad-core Opteron processors, with production introduction scheduled for midyear 2007. Equipment makers will be able to drop in the new AMD Socket F with virtually no changes to their motherboards. AMD executives say some application may experience as much as a 20% performance gain with the new Opteron Rev-F processors compared to the existing Opterons, but the real boost is expected when the quad-core chips become available.

Not only will the quad-core Opterons use the same socket as the new dual-core Opteron Rev-F, but the upcoming quad-core chips will also operate at the same power and thermal levels, says Steve Demski, Opteron product manager.

The Socket F is the first socket transition for Opteron, which was introduced in 2003. Opteron Rev-F maintains the same underlying architecture as the existing Opteron line unlike Intel's new Core-based processor, which represents a break from Intel's older NetBurst architecture.

"From a software standpoint, end users of the next-generation Opteron will be able to maintain a single, stable image," Demski says.

The Opteron Rev-F will be AMD's first processor to use DDR2 memory, which necessitated the socket change. Intel has already been using DDR2, but is now transitioning to fully buffered DIMMs, or dual in-line memory modules. Demski says AMD delayed the transition to DDR2 until those memory devices came into pricing parity with first-generation DDR memory.

The Opteron Rev-F will also be AMD's first processor to include embedded or hardware-assisted virtualization. The technology, which was developed under the code name Pacifica, is similar in approach to the embedded virtualization technology Intel has included in its latest-generation processors.

Last week, all the major virtualization software companies, including Microsoft, SWsoft, VMware, and ZenSource, announced support of AMD's virtualization technology.

Brookwood says Intel's Woodcrest introduction and AMD's Rev-F introduction bring the two rivals into a very close competitive technological position, and each processor will likely find specific applications and implementations in which it can excel.

"My guess is that AMD is likely to regain a real performance advantage next year" with the quad-core introduction, Brookwood says.

Andrew Caird, director of high-performance computing at the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan, says he has been evaluating a new SunFire 2200 server from Sun that uses the Opteron Rev-F processors. "We've enjoyed the power and performance characteristics of the previous Opteron-based systems and wanted to test these as soon as they were available," Caird says. "Our benchmarks have shown the new systems to be a couple of percent faster per cycle when compared to an equivalent clock speed of the previous generation."

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