AMD redefines processor metrics

For as long as server vendors have built Intel x86-based machines, the defining characteristic of the commodity server market has been the customers’ never-ending quest for more bangs for their buck. Not anymore.

When AMD finally brings its long-awaited Barcelona quad-core server chip to market at the end of August, it will not only spark a fresh round of fierce competition with its arch-rival Intel, it willalso mark a sea-change in the way that systems manufacturers market their server products, and in the parameters that buyers use to differentiate between those products.

Compared to its predecessor, the original AMD 64-bit Opteron chip, “Barcelona is a different kind of value proposition,” says Bruce Shaw, director of AMD’s worldwide commercial and enterprise marketing. “It’s not just about speed – although that is still important. It’s about being more energy efficient, and it’s about being a smarter platform for virtualisation. Most of all, it’s about power consumption,” he adds.

Shaw is certainly unlikely to find many data centre managers ready to contradict him on these two latter points. In the past two years, as organisations have sought to reduce the cost and complexity of their IT infrastructures by consolidating and re-centralising their sprawling server resources, they have all run up against three fundamental problems: finding enough space to house their machines; keeping these densely packed servers cool; and sourcing and paying for the electricity needed to keep everything running.

AMD boasts that Barcelona’s support for “smarter virtualisation” and “smarter power efficiency” can help data centre managers overcome all of these problems. Specifically, says Shaw, with Barcelona AMD “will support more virtual machines [than Intel]”, and “deliver twice as much performance in the same thermal and power footprint as our existing dual-core processors.”

AMD’s “smarter virtualisation” claims rest on Barcelona’s ability to translate between virtual and physical memory using the company’s new rapid virtualisation indexing (RVI) technology. Also known as nested paging, RVI removes the burden of managing memory from the hypervisor (such as VMware’s ESX server) and instead executes and stores memory translations in silicon.

Hypervisors can spend as much as three quarters of their time managing memory translation, so off-loading this task to hardware can greatly increase the number of virtual machines a hypervisor can support, and accelerate the speed with which they can be provisioned, migrated and decommissioned.

With the arrival of RVI, AMD can fairly claim to have taken a lead over Intel in its on-chip support for virtualisation. However, from a data centre manager’s perspective, probably the most eye-catching of Barcelona’s features are its power management capabilities.

Power efficiency was one of the features that gave AMD’s original Opteron chips an edge over Intel. By some measures these Opterons out-performed equivalent Intel parts while consuming 41% less power. However, Intel has more than clawed back this advantage with its early quad-core Xeons, which deliver twice as much processing capacity as a dual-core part, while only demanding a 50% increase in energy budget.

Now AMD is set on trumping Intel with a range of power management features that mean Barcelona systems will provide double the processing capacity of AMD’s dual-core chips, but without consuming any more power. These features include AMD’s CoolCore technology, that offers transistor level power control, and dual dynamic power management (DDPM) technology, which enables targeted power management of individual cores and memory control units on the same chip.

These features, coupled to Barcelona’s independent dynamic core technology (which means that each Barcelona core is an entirely separate entity for all management purposes), offer much finer grained and precise control of power consumption. Essentially, AMD customers will be able to precisely match their power consumption to the processing capacity requirements of individual applications.

This is a potentially ground-breaking technology that offers customers the possibility of expanding the logical capacity of their data centres, without incurring any increase in physical costs or, worse still, crashing into immutable physical resource barriers. But, AMD still has to deliver.

As Information Age went to press, no major systems manufacturer had yet revealed plans to ship Barcelona products. Indeed, one significant server vendor, which has announced plans to release new Intel-based four-way quad-core servers in September, commented that while Barcelona’s potential “is awesome, seeing is believing, and we haven’t seen it yet.”

Comments like these highlight how important it is that Barcelona meets its latest delivery date, and that it delivers

on the considerable promises that AMD has made for it. This time last year, according to Mercury Research, AMD’s power-efficient and high-performance Opteron parts had helped it to steal

just over a quarter of the x86 server markets. However, by the first quarter of this year the John Peddie analyst group estimated this market share had slipped back to 8%: a nose-dive due almost entirely to AMD’s inability to match Intel’s quad-core server technology.

Now, with Barcelona waiting in the wings, AMD must hope that it can reverse this trend and once more take significant share from its arch-rival. By focusing on power-efficiency and virtualisation support, it has certainly chosen the right strategy, but now it has to execute.

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