AMD officially launches Opteron

After months of hype and expectation, Advanced Micro Devices on Tuesday officially launched its Opteron processor, complete with a ringing hardware endorsement from IBM.

The IBM backing is good news for AMD, which is positioning the 32/64-bit chip to compete against Intel. The chip uses the x86 instruction set with 64-bit extensions so that it can run 32- and 64-bit applications simultaneously, a departure from the path Intel has taken with its 64-bit Itanium processor. Itanium runs 32-bit applications, but with performance degradation.

"We believe that Opteron provides customers with a natural evolutionary path from today's industry-standard 32-bit environment, empowering them to gracefully migrate their 32-bit systems into the 64-bit world," Mark Shearer, vice president of IBM's eServer Systems, said during AMD's press conference in New York.

Supporters at the press conference also included companies such as Computer Associates, Microsoft and Fujitsu Siemens. Microsoft had already announced it would support the Opteron chip with Windows Server 2003, and IBM last summer ported its DB2 database software to Opteron.

Three models of the Opteron are available at launch, the Opteron 240, 242, and 244. AMD is using a model rating system for the Opteron processor that uses three numbers. The first number represents the maximum number of processors that can be used in a system with that chip, and the last two numbers the relative performance of that chip. AMD started the performance numbering at 40 because it thought customers might correlate the last two numbers with the processor's clock speed, and 4GHz processors are not on the market as of yet.

In quantities of 1,000 units, the Opteron 240 for two-way servers and workstations costs US$283, the 242 costs $690, and the 244 costs $794. The 800 series for eight-way servers will be available later in the second quarter, and the 100 series for one-way servers will be released in the third quarter, AMD said in a release.

"IBM believes that Opteron offers compelling performance at an affordable price," Shearer said in announcing IBM's plans to deliver an Opteron-based server platform.

Shearer also says IBM will make Opteron technology available in its supercomputing-on-demand service, which gives customers access to powerful supercomputer clusters on a pay-as-you-go basis.

"IBM's support is a big win for AMD," says Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata.

Haff noted that IBM didn't announce a specific product, "but they certainly had a lot of nice things to say about Opteron… It shows pretty convincingly that IBM is very much in the Opteron camp, and it's probably also indicative of IBM further cooling to Itanium."

Buyers will be waiting to see systems where they can "kick the tires," he says. Already, several second-tier systems vendors such as Penguin Computing and Racksaver have announced they will use the processor.

Jamie Gruener, an analyst with the Yankee Group, says the IBM support is important, but the key will be how Opteron is used in corporate data centers.

"Intel for better or worse took an active interest in the system-level architecture in what they were going to provide. It's not clear that AMD has put the same thought process in place to deal with the issue. It's a system-level approach. You don't buy processors if you're an end user; you buy a server," he says.

"But this could validate the fact that you don't have to follow the Intel train if this actually works," he adds. "A lot of us are going to be watching it very closely."

(Tom Krazit and Stacy Cowley contributed to this report.)

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