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March 9, 2007

Battle of the Prototypes

Michael Feldman

Quick quiz. Who recently said the following quote and to whom were they referring?

“I'm sick and tired of being pushed around by a competitor that doesn't understand the rules of fair and open competition.”

1. Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer talking about Google
2. Donald Trump talking about Rosie O'Donnell
3. AMD Executive VP Henri Richard talking about Intel
4. Everyone on Survivor talking about everyone else on Survivor

You're right if you answered number three. (If you guessed number one, I'll give you points for mind-reading, but he never actually uttered the words aloud.) In truth, Henri Richard never explicitly mentioned Intel, since within AMD their rival is usually just referred to as “the competition,” “the other,” or more simply, “Beelzebub.”

If AMD seems to be defensive these days, it's understandable. In the midst of a price war with Intel, AMD has seen its profits and stock prices decline substantially over the past six months. More recently the company has struggled to keep its distribution channel supplied with chips, causing AMD to admit that it will miss its original Q1 2007 revenue goals.

Better days may be ahead. With the ATI merger behind it, AMD expects its new graphics cards and upcoming Barcelona quad-core Opteron to propel the company out of the doldrums.

The Henri Richard quote from above was part of a preamble to last Wednesday's AMD press/analyst briefing, which included, among other things, a demonstration of a 'Teraflop in Box' prototype system.

Whether or not the AMD-based teraflop machine was meant to counter the media frenzy surrounding the 80-core teraflop Intel processor is debatable. But Richard did refer to other “teraflop computing products that may come to market five years from now,” noting that AMD knows how to do teraflop computing today.

The demonstrated benchmark used a multiply-add (MADD) calculation to achieve the teraflop mark. Interestingly, AMD also demonstrated using the GPU-based machines to achieve a 20x – 40x speedup (compared to a typical CPU platform) on the real-world Folding@Home application, which performs computationally intensive simulations of protein folding. No numbers were provided for the actual levels of sustained performance achieved.

Although both AMD's and Intel's teraflop systems are prototypes, AMD used actual production chips in its machine, so presumably an OEM could bring a real product to market this year. The showcased AMD-equipped system contained an Opteron processor and two R600 graphics cards. The R600 graphics card is technically not in production yet, but is expected to be launched in Q2 of this year. As you might have guessed, most of the teraflop number crunching comes from the graphics cards. The R600 is one of the new species of GPU devices which can be targeted for stream computing, a type of workload that can be applied to a variety of high performance computing applications.

AMD is not alone in producing high-end graphics devices that double as general-purpose stream processors. Just this week, NVIDIA released its latest high-end Quadro cards, which were also designed to support GPU stream computing. Intel's much-rumored Larabee GPU program may produce some real devices as early as next year, bringing a third offering to the graphics table. The competition is just getting started.


As always, comments about HPCwire are welcomed and encouraged. Write to me, Michael Feldman, at