Since the April 22 launch of Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s Opteron microprocessor for servers and workstations, a wealth of information has come to the fore concerning the new chip. Performance benchmarks, technical analyses and uncounted column inches of industry punditry dedicated to Opteron have made their appearance.
Unfortunately for AMD, the most important question regarding the future success of the microprocessor remains unanswered: Will Opteron garner design wins from Tier-1 OEMs?
Should such support arrive -- and based on IBM's launch-day comments iSuppli is led to believe Big Blue indeed will be shipping an Opteron box at some time -- iSuppli thinks the most likely form of initial support will be at the "toe in the water" level. This will be the time when OEMs test the water to determine the level of demand for Opteron systems, likely through the reselling or the re-branding of systems from other smaller vendors, or from Original Design Manufacturers (ODMs) or Electronics Manufacturing Services (EMS) providers.
We have seen this approach before. For example, IBM resold blade servers from RLX Technologies Inc. until the computer giant was convinced of the existence of a substantial market for the new systems -- and had developed its own products and strategy.
It is highly probable that the leading system OEMs are in the middle of this process now, potentially with some advance systems installed at key customer sites. This real-world testing frequently is conducted on new systems, where OEMs fine-tune the products. This is crucially important to their performance and reliability.
In light of this, what conclusions should we derive from the scarcity of major OEM design-win announcements concerning Opteron?
Looking specifically at the Tier-1 server OEMs, IBM is the most prominent supporter of the microprocessor, having expressed its intention to ship an Opteron server. The company in 2002 also said it was optimizing its DB2 database software for the Opteron's AMD64 architecture.
Dell Computer Corp. said it is evaluating the microprocessor, and senior executives have made numerous remarks about using it. However, Dell in the past has been very canny in its capability to use expressions of interest in AMD products as a method to gain contract concessions from its exclusive microprocessor supplier: Intel Corp.
Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) has been much less vocal about Opteron. But don't forget that HP now maintains three 64-bit microprocessor architectures in its product portfolio: Intel's Itanium, Compaq's Alpha and its own PA-RISC. Does HP need a fourth?
Perhaps a more important question is: Can HP make a fourth 64-bit architecture fit into its product line without completely confusing its customers?
Finally. there is Sun Microsystems Inc., which has not broadcast a clear message regarding Opteron. The company would dearly love to rid itself of the Intel microprocessors it uses in its recently-introduced low-end x86 servers. Opteron's 64-bit capability would allow Sun to produce servers that would perform similarly to the company's 64-bit UltraSPARC servers -- but at a fraction of the cost.
iSuppli believes Tier-1 OEMs will ship Opteron servers in due course, as the flexibility of the migration strategy the AMD microprocessors provide is much more palatable than the all-or-nothing transition approach required for Intel's competitive microprocessor, the Itanium.
The lack of formal announcements should not be viewed as a negative for Opteron or AMD -- not yet anyway.
Matthew Wilkins is a senior analyst with iSuppli's Market Intelligence Group. Wilkins covers the Computer Systems platforms market for iSuppli's Compute Platforms research. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org