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'AMD Inside' Is Heard More Often

Struggling to compete with Intel, second-place chipmaker achieves success with a chip that provides a smooth migration path to 64-bit computing
"While unit volumes [of Opteron] are not large as yet, it's been only a year in a market that is notoriously slow for adopting new products," McCarron says. "Change is not a thing that's done trivially" by enterprise systems makers.

Some customers are interested in making a change. VeriSign Inc., a provider of technology infrastructure and information-security services, has a critical need for 64-bit computing because "what we care about is how many operations per second we can get in a given class" of computer, says Aristotle Balogh, senior VP of operations and infrastructure. VeriSign also works with large data sets that would benefit from 64-bit computing.

VeriSign has prototyped every Itanium chip to be released by Intel and uses some Itanium-based servers. "They're just incredibly expensive. There's just no way around it," Balogh says. "But when we got ahold of some Opteron boxes about a year ago, frankly, we were blown away by the absolute price-performance improvement."

A four-way Opteron server costs less than $30,000 and delivers nearly twice the performance of an eight-way RISC system priced at more than $150,000, he says. Balogh hasn't been impressed with Itanium's performance, he says. He plans to evaluate Xeon with 64-bit extensions.

"This round goes to AMD. But I suspect we'll be running Intel side by side with Opteron within a year," Balogh says. "AMD has gotten a foothold in the enterprise, and I actually have a reason to buy AMD now. But Intel isn't going anywhere. It's the mainstay of much of the production operation."

Keyhole Inc. provides realistic satellite imagery to desktop PC users via the Internet and needs large amounts of computing power to process terabytes of data at streaming-video speeds, VP of engineering Brian McClendon says. The company has used Xeon- and Itanium-based systems, "but right now the Opteron is definitely the best bang for the buck," he says.

Keyhole tested Sun's V20x dual Opteron servers early this year and saw price-performance that was double its existing systems, McClendon says. A big advantage was Opteron's 32/64-bit compatibility, allowing Keyhole to run existing code uncompiled at 64 bits. With Itanium, Keyhole had to spend days recompiling entire applications to make them usable, he says.

"A compatible instruction set that maintains performance is a critical step in getting acceptance of 64-bit computing," McClendon says. "The more recent announcement of an x86/64-bit [Xeon] by Intel has demonstrated that [Opteron] is a completely safe bet."

Despite AMD's recent accomplishments, Ruiz acknowledges that the company has many challenges ahead. Although it has posted two consecutive profitable quarters, it hasn't recorded a profitable year since 2000. Ruiz says market share growth won't happen overnight. "We know we can compete by focusing on fundamentals. We believe we can anticipate the market," he says. "We have lofty ambitions, and we also have reasonable goals, to grow profitability quarter by quarter and steadily grow market share."

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

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