AMD pushes six-core chips as upgrade to Shanghai

AMD's six-core offering could be the company's fastest server chip to date

Advanced Micro Devices on Monday announced six-core Opteron chips, which make them the fastest server chips the company has released to date.

Until now, AMD offered only quad-core server processors, with the fastest being Opteron chips code-named Shanghai. The six-core chips, code-named Istanbul, will offer 30 percent faster performance while drawing the same amount of power as Shanghai chips, said Brent Kerby, product marketing manager for AMD's server workstation group.

AMD is in a race with chip rival Intel to put more cores on processors to improve chip performance while drawing less power. Officials from Intel, which already offers quad-core Xeon server processors, last week detailed their upcoming eight-core Nehalem EX server processors, due in 2010. But by the time Intel ships Nehalem EX, AMD will be ready with its 12-core chip code-named Magny-Cours.

AMD is releasing five Istanbul chips that run at speeds of up to 2.6GHz and draw up to 75 watts of power during average CPU usage. Two chips will be part of Opteron 8000 series of chips, while three will be part of the Opteron 2000 series of chips. The chips will include 6MB of L3 cache and 512KB of L2 cache per core.

Istanbul chips will go into servers with up to eight sockets, which could bring the processing power of 48 cores. The chips will plug into existing servers that already have AMD's server processors, Kerby said. Upgrading a server would simply require replacing existing CPUs with Istanbul chips, which could reduce the hardware acquisition costs.

Top server vendors, including Hewlett-Packard and Dell, will place Istanbul chips in their servers. Dell will offer Istanbul chips in six PowerEdge servers, while HP declined to detail any Istanbul-related announcements.

Dell benchmarked the six-core chip and said it provides better application performance -- up to 61 percent in some cases -- compared to quad-core Shanghai chips. "Customers can get improved performance in I/O intensive applications like databases and technical computing without taking up more floor space or power consumption," said Sally Stevens, vice president of platform marketing at Dell.

Despite performance increases, Istanbul chips won't completely replace quad-core Opterons, Kerby said. Customers looking to scale performance in applications like databases could use Istanbul chips, while those looking for price and performance may continue to opt for quad-core chips. Quad-core chips may be relevant for less data-intensive tasks like Web 2.0 and cloud-computing applications, Kerby said.

Istanbul is a major technological advancement for AMD, but its launch comes at the wrong time, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst for Mercury Research. Server purchases have slowed down during the recession because of frozen IT budgets, which could affect Istanbul's adoption.

"Unfortunately, it is being launched in an extremely weak market for servers. Everybody is feeling the pain," he said.

Worldwide server unit shipments -- including x86 systems -- declined 26.5 percent year-over-year in the first quarter of 2009 to around 1.49 million units, the largest unit shipment decline in close to five years, IDC said last week. Factory revenue during the quarter declined by 24.5 percent to $9.9 billion.

The recession's negative effect also makes upgrading a quad-core to six-core chips unlikely, especially on one- and two-socket servers, McCarron said. "There is a lot of incentive in the server space to make do with what you have."

The chip may find value in data centers and servers with more than four sockets, McCarron said. A larger number of Istanbul chips operating together can show tremendous impact and provide the scalability to execute data-intensive tasks like databases and enterprise resource planning applications.

Nevertheless, the new chip makes AMD more competitive against rival Intel, McCarron said. AMD has been losing ground to Intel in chip shipments over the last few years, so Istanbul could also help AMD wrestle some of that market share back.

"Anything that makes their product line more competitive helps their market share. That creates a more aggressive battle," McCarron said.

The six-core AMD Opteron Model 8435 runs at 2.6GHz and is priced at US$2,649. The Opteron Model 8431 runs at 2.4GHz and is priced at $2,149. In the 2000 series, the AMD Opteron Model 2435 runs at 2.6 GHz and is priced at $989, the 2.4GHz Opteron 2431 is priced at $698, while the 2.2GHz Opteron 2427 is priced at $455.

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