Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s long-awaited Opteron server processor will make its official debut Tuesday, but it may take years before the success of the company's landmark chip can be judged.
With dual 64/32-bit capability, Opteron is AMD's first processor to challenge Intel Corp.'s 32-bit Xeon MPU in the 4- to 8-way enterprise server category. It is also the first 64-bit processor in the industry to run the popular x86 code in native mode, which AMD expects will give it an edge when Opteron squares off against proprietary 64-bit chips from Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM.
AMD president Hector Ruiz last week called the Opteron launch "the single most important event in the history of our company. It is the future of AMD and of the computing industry."
Many analysts agreed that Opteron will give AMD a chance to profit from the higher-margin, high-performance server and workstation market and help offset the price pressure it has experienced in its long battle with Intel in the desktop PC sector.
Opteron's official launch has been delayed since late last year, and customers will have to wait a little longer for the 8-way processor version, which is expected to be ready in the second half of 2003. Opteron will debut Tuesday supporting a Linux operating system from SuSE linux A.G., with another Linux OS from Red Hat Inc., Raleigh, N.C., coming later this year. Microsoft Corp. is expected to release the production version of its 64-bit Windows OS in the second half of the year, although beta versions are shipping now.
Despite its highly-touted dossier and fanfare launch, Opteron may take two to three years to break into the enterprise server market in a meaningful way, according to analysts and AMD itself.
"Server vendors are an extremely conservative group. They want proven chips with a long successful track record," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with InSight 64, Saratoga, Calif. "Opteron is new and regardless of its merits will face a tough sell for enterprise server OEMs."
Kevin Graf, AMD's marketing manager for servers and workstations, agreed that the server market is skeptical of new players and chip technology. However, he said Opteron's performance will win over server customers, even if it takes a little time.
"We're in this market for the long haul," Graf said. "When folks come around to Opteron, we'll be there."
Still, an essential ingredient to a successful launch is AMD's ability to land a major server vendor, an endeavor that won't be easy, said Peter Glaskowsky, processor analyst with Instat/MDR, San Jose.
Graf said AMD is "planning to have a Tier 1 partner at the launch," but would not name the company or confirm if it has in fact committed to the new chip.
Billed as a commodity
Whatever its adoption rate, Opteron is significant because it is the first MPU to extend x86 programming code into the realm of 64-bit processing. InSight 64's Brookwood noted that all other 64-bit processors, including Intel's Itanium, have essentially abandoned the x86 code.
"It's not known now what will happen when software developers have the opportunity to expand 32-bit x86 programs to 64-bit," he said. "It could jigger a lot of new software, which could benefit Opteron greatly."
Brookwood said the new chip could begin to "commoditize" the 64-bit processor market, which up to now has consisted of proprietary architectures, and as a result lower prices and raise unit volumes.
AMD's Graf agreed, saying that the company is "going to change the economics of 64-bit computing by eliminating the barriers of expensive proprietary processors."
Among other changes, the Opteron chips will carry a new device numbering system. All uniprocessors will be part of a 100-series family. Two-way processors will be in the 200 series, and 4- to 8-way processors listed in the 400 series.
The first Opteron chips unveiled Tuesday will be 240, 242, and 244. Graf said the last two digits represent different levels of performance. The numbering scheme doesn't relate to any specific parameters, such as frequency, but is based on a series of up to seven different industry benchmark tests.
The chip's design includes an on-die memory controller, eliminating the frontside bus and external north bridge, which enables memory cells to be accessed at the same speed as the processor. The first Opterons will support PC2700 memory modules or DDR333 SDRAMs, and the on-die memory controller will allow up to eight registered DDR DIMM modules per processor with available memory bandwidth of up to 5.3Gbytes/s per MPU.
Graf said future Opteron designs will support new memory chips, such as DDR400 and DDR2. "To integrate DDR2, only the integrated memory controller will need to be reworked," he said. "The 32/64-bit processor core and the HyperTransport interfaces will not need to be reworked."
The Opteron features 1Mbyte of on-die L2 cache, while up to three high-speed HyperTransport I/O links provide as much as 19.2Gbytes/s peak bandwidth. The south bridge is supported by AMD's new 8000 series chipset, which consists of the 8111 HyperTransport I/O hub, the 8131 HyperTransport PCI-X link, and the 8151 HyperTransport AGP graphics link.
Third party core-logic vendors Acer Laboratories Inc., Silicon Integrated Systems Inc., and VIA Technologies Inc., as well as graphics IC designer Nvidia Corp. all have disclosed that they will release chipsets to support the Opteron.
AMD will follow up Tuesday's launch with the unveiling in September of the Athlon 64 desktop, a 32/64-bit x86 processor with a single HyperTransport link aimed at the desktop PC market.
Shane Rau, an analyst with research firm IDC in Mountain View, Calif., said the desktop segment offers the potential for greater volumes for AMD than does the servet market. "It could lead to long-term viability for AMD," Rau said.