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Intel Closing The Server-Chip Performance Gap With AMD

Intel executives say the company's new Xeon 5100 server chip, formerly code-named Woodcrest, closes the gap in power consumption with AMD's competitive products.

Intel on Monday began shipping a new microprocessor for servers--its first featuring a redesigned chip architecture--that it says closes gaps in computing performance and power consumption with products from competitor Advanced Micro Devices, which has been stealing market share.

Intel's new processor can run more than twice as fast as its previous server chips and consumes 40% less power, the company said. Intel began shipping the new Xeon 5100 chips, code-named "Woodcrest," in large volumes Monday, and computer makers including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM are taking orders for the chips. Woodcrest is Intel's first chip using a new microarchitecture called Core, which replaces an instruction set called NetBurst, used in Pentium and older Xeon processors. Woodcrest chips can provide business customers with more processing power for data analysis and supply greater performance per watt--which Intel said is the second largest contributor to the total cost of owning a given computer system--than similar products from AMD, company executives said at an event in San Francisco on Monday.

"We're back in a position we're used to being in," said Tom Kilroy, an Intel VP who led the presentation to reporters, analysts, and computer vendors. "Intel's at its very best" when leading on microarchitecture and manufacturing process at the same time, he added. Kilroy also said Intel has "struggled" against AMD during the last year and a half.

Intel has been losing share to AMD, whose Opteron chips for servers have performed better and run cooler than Intel's. AMD held 15% of the worldwide market for servers based on the widely used x86 design in the first quarter, according to market researcher Gartner, and nearly 26% of the U.S. market. At an event earlier this month, AMD said it expects to capture one-third of the overall x86 market for servers and PCs by 2008.

During its presentation Monday, Intel brought on stage high-profile customers who plan on buying Woodcrest chips. Greg Brandeau, VP of technology at Pixar Animation Studios, said the maker of computer animated films including the new release Cars, realized a 30% performance boost and 50% power savings with servers based on Woodcrest. That could let the company pack 2.2 times the computing power into the same space in its data center, important as Pixar runs thousands of Intel CPUs that "render" mathematical equations and data into watchable pixels. "It's just denser computing," he said. "We're looking at Woodcrest because they just brought so much less power." Pixar also purchases servers based on AMD's Opteron.

BMW is using Woodcrest chips to reduce the number of servers it runs in certain departments, a manager at the German automaker said at the event.

Intel and AMD have been engaged in a battle of benchmarks, with each company claiming that its newest products, which feature two processing cores on the same chip, run fastest and coolest. Intel's performance benchmarks measure power drawn from the wall into servers running its chips, while AMD measures the maximum power drawn by individual processors. Geof Findley, a technical manager at Intel, says the company's Core microarchitecture can help Intel make a faster transition from a memory technology called DDR2 to a new industry standard called FB-DIMM. Memory modules using FB-DIMM technology allow computer makers to install more DRAM chips on a motherboard compared with DDR2, removing a bottleneck to memory performance as system bus speeds increase. AMD's approach of integrating a computer's memory controller onto its Opteron chip means AMD needs to redesign its architecture before it can take advantage of the new technology, Findley says. "They need to make a major platform change," he says.

Intel says its Core architecture also lets processors share cache memory across both cores on the chip, which means a processor needs to access DRAM memory less frequently, speeding performance.

A desktop chip code-named "Conroe" based on the Core technology is due next month, and a Core chip for notebooks code-named "Merom" is due in August. Intel plans to deliver server chips with four cores in the first quarter of next year, beating to market AMD, which says it plans so-called "quad-core" chips late next year.

Intel is also reducing prices to try to gain traction for its new chips. Boyd Davis, an Intel general manager, says Intel won't charge its customers a premium for new Woodcrest chips compared with single-core Xeons. "Customers want new-generation technology at the price points they're used to," he says. Intel has also cut prices on older products.

But Margaret Lewis, a director at AMD, said in an interview this month that Intel dropped prices "on products the industry doesn't want."

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