How much longer can Intel, AMD take different quad-core approaches?

Some believe it's only a matter of time before the two roads to the quad-core market converge

Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) are taking different paths to the quad-core market, but some believe it's only a matter of time before their roads converge.

Intel got a six-month jump on AMD by using a manufacturing strategy of coupling two of its existing dual-core processors inside a single package. AMD's upcoming Barcelona processor will be its first quad-core offering for the server market, and it will be manufactured using what AMD calls a "native" design, which is a single chip with four independent cores.

Some observers are not convinced that the performance improvements AMD may be able to offer with its more "elegant" design will be able to overcome Intel's growing advantage in the quad-core war.

"The AMD processor theoretically will be faster but, in practice, it is probably going to be a relatively small difference," said Martin Reynolds, an analyst at Gartner. "Intel's strategy is providing a substantial competitive advantage, and it was an easy solution for them. Frankly, I wonder if AMD won't be forced to take the same approach even though they've made some pretty strong public statements about not doing it."

David Tuhy, a general manager in Intel's business client group, said that not only has the multichip packaging approach taken by Intel allowed the company to get into the market quickly, it also enables Intel to get the highest performance parts into customers' hands at the lowest possible price.

With multichip packaging, Intel can choose the two best-performing dual-core die off a given production wafer, and then pair them together for a higher performance part. The processor can be sold less expensively because the total wafer twice yield as much as twice the useable die than a wafer that contains only monolithic quad-core die.

Pat Patla, director of Opteron marketing at AMD, said the company's monolithic approach will "bring the right product with the right characteristics" to market in time to address the real inflection point for dual to quad migration. Barcelona will not only have four independent cores, it will come with new architectural enhancements that will yield greater performance and performance per watt characteristics than a multichip package approach.

"This will be a complete engineering redesign with a new instruction set, and is a much bigger deal than just the doubling the number of cores," Patla said.

Will Intel move to four independent cores?

As soon as early next year, it will not be surprising to see Intel also move to a monolithic quad-core design as well. As Intel migrates its manufacturing process from 65 nanometers to 45 nanometers, the company will likely bring out a newly designed quad-core offering with four independent processing cores.

It's the same strategy that Intel used during the dual-core migration. Intel's first dual-core offerings came in a multichip package that combined two single core processors. When Intel migrated its manufacturing process from 90 nanometers to 65 nanometers, the company introduced new dual-core design with two independent cores.

The migration to quad-core processors will let Dell further its objective to migrate customers away from multisocket server platforms to single and dual-socket offerings, said Stori Waugh, senior manager in Dell's server product group.

New two-socket servers from Dell using quad-core Xeon processors provide equivalent or even greater raw performance and performance per watt than do four-socket servers with dual-core processors, she said. The latest two-socket, quad-core servers sell for US$8,000 to US$12,000, depending on configuration, versus a price tag of US$16,000 to US$25,000 for a four-socket, dual-core server. In addition, the two-socket, quad-core systems provide about 40% better performance per watt than a four-socket, dual-core system.

"It's a very compelling story for our customers," she said. "We're looking at this as the beginning of the end for four-socket systems. It's great from a consolidation standpoint and from an energy standpoint."

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