AMD's New Chip Ploy--Open Source Sockets

By publishing its Opteron socket specification, AMD is making it easier for chipmakers to design processors that just snap into an AMD motherboard.

Darrell Dunn, Contributor

September 20, 2006

3 Min Read

Advanced Micro Device plans to publish its Opteron socket specification in a move that it hopes will boost sales by letting other chip makers design application-specific co-processors to be integrated alongside Opteron for optimized performance.

AMD's Torrenza Innovation Socket initiative describes in detail a two-socket motherboard that will have an AMD chip in one socket and another processor in the other socket. By publishing the specification, AMD is making it easier for chip makers to design processors that just snap into an AMD motherboard, rather than being connected via a system bus or some other manner.

"The combination of growing AMD market share and the performance benefits of being on the backbone as opposed to a systems bus should make this worthwhile," says Mike Feibus, an analyst with TeckKnowledge Strategies Inc.

For computer makers, the Torrenza initiative will let them consolidate server offerings that use multiple processors to a single platform, while reducing data center disruption and deployment costs, says Marty Seyer, senior VP of AMD's commercial segment.

AMD announced in June the open release of its coherent hypertransport bus used to connect multiple processors on AMD-based systems, providing improved performance by eliminating bandwidth bottlenecks. By providing its socket specification, third-party chip makers can create socket-compatible chips that can take advantage of AMD's higher-volume x86 base.

"We're making volume economics available to specialized processors," Seyer says. "We are creating a platform that has volume economics that still allows for innovation. Depending on what is developed, it absolutely could have high value.

One likely candidate will be ATI's graphics co-processor, a business AMD has announced it plans to acquire by year end. AMD eventually intends to integrate ATI's graphics capabilities within its microprocessor design. A first step would be getting the ATI chip into the Torrenza socket. Graphics processor maker nVidia would also be a likely candidate if it intends to retain market share as AMD merges with ATI, says Feibus.

Cray, Fujitsu-Siemens, IBM, and Sun "are taking a serious look" at the potential for Torrenza, Seyer says.

"Clearly the open socket is a revolutionary concept in creating a standard platform," says Mike Splain, chief technologists for Sun's systems group. "This is a natural evolution of the open source movement."

Sun has internal microelectronics design competency it has used to build a variety of electronics chips in the past, most notably devices based on the Sparc processor architecture. The company is interested in creating accelerators that would work within the Torrenza socket, as well as using third-party chips, he says.

Eventually, Sun could envision standardizing on the Torrenza socket for both its x86 and Sparc processors, allowing it to only have to create a single motherboard for its severs instead of two separate boards to support its x86 machines and its Sparc machines, Splain says.

Making a socket specification open is not a new idea. Intel, when it was trying to establish the x86 processor architecture as a defacto standard, licensed its processor specifications to third-party vendors, including AMD, to create multiple sources for the processor.

AMD is already experiencing strong growth in the server market. According to Mercury Research, AMD in the second quarter its share of the x86 market was 26%, up from 22% in the first quarter.

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