AMD's server battle against Intel is all about execution: Analyst

New Intel servers are scalable to a 256-socket array

AMD will have to communicate intimately with vendors, channel partners and end-users if it is to stand a chance against mainstay x86 processor manufacturer Intel, according to IDC analyst Felipe Rego. AMD recently launched its Opteron 6000 processors for one to four-socket servers, but it only has a 7 per cent share of the x86 server market, according to the research firm.

Intel currently controls the remaining 93 per cent of the x86 server market, which grown significantly since the global financial crisis due to its performance-per-cost benefits over RISC-based systems.

Only a day after AMD offered its latest range of server processors, Intel launched a new salvo against its rival, announcing the Nehalem EX server processors. The Xeon 5600, 6500 and 7500 processors only offer a maximum of eight cores per socket — AMD's Opteron 6000 provides up to 12 per socket — but offer greater memory density and target mission-critical server applications rather than the low-end servers AMD has focussed on.

Intel's enterprise business development manager, Corey Loehr, said the new processors are part of the company's "largest ever data centre refresh”, providing three times the performance of previous generation processors and a 20:1 consolidation from single-socket Xeon MP servers. The Xeon 7500 series is largely targeted at servers that have four or more sockets, with some vendors offering up to 256 sockets in a single array.

The Xeon 6500 processors are nearly identical, but are geared towards two-socket processors, and can't address as many QuickPath Interconnect links. Servers that currently use the Xeon 5500 processor will be able to upgrade to the Xeon 5600, which is targeted at lower-end servers and provides 30 per cent lower power than the previous generation.

The processors support 16 DIMM slots each, providing memory density of up to 1TB of DDR3 memory in a four-socket server. AMD's servers, on the other hand, will support up to 48GB of memory per CPU, or 192GB of memory for a comparative server.

The new Intel Xeon 7500 processors are expected to provide an 8 per cent cost reduction over previous processors but won't provide any significant benefits in power efficiency.

Intel is also making grounds against RISC-based servers, which are generally preferred by IT managers for mission-critical applications. One measure in the Xeon 7500 processors is the inclusion of Machine Check Architecture (MCA), which allows servers to report unrecoverable memory errors to a software layer in supporting server operating systems, such as Windows Server 2008 R2.

Also included are measures such as self-healing, clock failover and packet retry for both QuickPath Interconnect links and System Management Interrupts, as well as memory rank sparing.

In defending the x86 server platform against RISC-based solutions, Loehr said that Intel's current offerings would provide double the performance at half the price of RISC systems from Sun. The servers would also provide 80 per cent of the performance of IBM's RISC-based servers at a fifth of the cost.

Rego told Computerworld Australia that x86-based servers were steadily gaining on RISC alternatives.

"In 2008 the non-x86 market - including RISC systems - declined more than 20 percent over 2007 in revenue, whereas the x86 market - in which Intel has got more than 90% of share - declined by only three percent," he said. "In 2009, both markets declined in a similar pattern to 2008 as the GFC hit more strongly. For the year of 2010, the forecast shows that both markets will show positive returns with only x86 [servers] showing double digit growth."

Intel has partnered with hardware vendors including NEC, Fujitsu, Dell, IBM, Cisco, Hitachi, HP, Unisys, Bulb and Cray to bring the servers to market. The servers are already being used for benchmarking and testing by the University of Queensland for bio-nano-engineering, and BoundaryRider, which provides high risk management and forecasting for NAB, ANZ, Commonwealth Bank and Westpac.

IDC’s Rego said AMD's Opteron 6000 processors were a strong offering, but that execution would remain the defining factor.

"AMD locally seems to be bringing good offerings particularly in the 2P and 4P spaces with good price points," he said. "Intel's new line-up has also strong presence in the mainstream market but it seems that they are targeting the HPC environment. [Intel is] trying to generate more business and cannibilise business from non-x86 platform market, such as RISC."

He said AMD has lost share in the server market since 2007, with failures in the release and execution of Barcelona-based and other server processors. The new Opteron processors, however, would be strong contenders in the two and four-socket server market, provided AMD talked and reacted appropriately to vendors, channel partners and end-users.

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