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AMD sells 15,000 Barcelona chips to one user as it launches new Intel fight

Caught 'flat-footed' by Intel, AMD server market share has slipped

September 10, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - In the Presidio, a former U.S. Army base in San Francisco, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. today is announcing delivery of its Barcelona quad-core processor. It's a historic setting, and one the company may use to remind its customers of its own history as an upstart.

In 2003, AMD released the Opteron, a 64-bit, x86 processor, into a world dominated by Intel's 32-bit chip. Opteron was a hit. Hardware vendors added it to their server lines, high-performance and businesses users adopted it, and Intel faced its biggest challenge yet in the business server market.

But Intel has responded ferociously to this challenge. Today, AMD is nearly one year behind Intel in releasing a quad-core processor, and its server market share is now in retreat, according to market research company IDC. At its launch event tonight, AMD officials are hoping to recapture the momentum the company had nearly four years ago.

Supercomputer users were among Opteron's earliest adopters, and that is one piece of Opteron history that may be repeated with release of the quad-core Barcelona. What may well become the world's largest supercomputer is now being built at the Texas Advanced Computing Center with Barcelona chips.

More than 15,000 Barcelona processors will be used in this system, capable of computer power in excess of 500 teraflops. A teraflop is 1 trillion floating-point operations per second.

Tommy Minyard, assistant director of the Austin-based computing center, said that when the $30 million system is finished early next year, it will have 63,000 cores in total. This supercomputer, called "Ranger," is using Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Sun Blade 6000 servers, and each blade will have four physical processors. It will be used primarily for academic research. "It's going to be a very impressive system," Minyard said.

Minyard said Opteron was picked because of its floating-point and memory-sharing capabilities. When the advanced computing center proposed this system about a year and a half ago, it set a chip=speed expectation of 2 GHz. Minyard said he had been hoping that AMD's quad chip -- when the specs were finally announced -- would have been a little faster, but it does meet their expectation. In terms of raw chip speed, Intel's most recent quad-core chip, the "Tigerton" Xeon 7300, reaches about 3 GHz.

Bruce Shaw, director of server and workstation product marketing at AMD, said he doesn't believe users have "the crushing need" they once did for high clock speed. "We think the real market is a balance of performance per watt and not speed at all cost," Shaw said.

When Opteron was released in 2003, AMD "snuck up on Intel and hit them with a hammer," said Crowford Del Prete, an analyst at IDC. At that time, AMD wasn't in the data center, but it is now, and since then, manufacturers and users have invested in them.

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