AMD Pulls the Trigger on Its 45

By Michael Feldman

November 13, 2008

Barcelona, we hardly knew ye. Today AMD launched its 45nm “Shanghai” quad-core Opterons, sending the ill-fated 65nm Barcelona chips into the microprocessor history books. While the company has some catching up to do with regard to Intel hardware, AMD is counting on its newly shrunk processor line to regain some lost market share from its rival. Intel has had 45nm parts on the market for a year, which has chipped away at AMD’s customer base. AMD decided to lead its 45nm charge with its server lineup, leaving the corresponding mobile and desktop products for Q1 2009.

Immediately available will be the 75W versions of Shanghai, at speeds of 2.3 to 2.7 GHz. In Q1 2009, the HE (55W) and SE (105W) versions will hit the channel. The high-performance SE chips should be of special interest to the HPC crowd, but AMD hasn’t yet divulged the clock speed, other than to say it will be somewhere north of 2.7 GHz. The entire line is compatible with the Rev F socket, so the new chips can be plugged into existing machines with just a BIOS upgrade.

As you might guess from a process shrink, the new CPUs will run at higher clock frequencies (up to 2.7 GHz), have more cache (8 GB), and deliver better performance/watt (great taste/less filling). AMD is claiming up to 35 percent better performance and 35 percent less power consumption at idle. The new chips also support faster DDR2 memory (800 MHz), which delivers 10 percent more bandwidth than the previous controller. An interesting new feature is the “Smart Fetch” technology, where cores automatically power down when waiting for data or instructions to arrive after some threshold time is exceeded. The cores dumps their local L1 and L2 cache to L3 before going to sleep, reversing the process upon waking up.

The Shanghai parts are being produced with a new 45nm immersion lithography process. AMD says the technology yields a tighter projection beam, which supports more precise geometry and leads to less manufacturing defects. According to Steve Demski, AMD’s product manager for the Server and Workstation Division, this has a distinct cost advantage over the double-etch manufacture technology being used by Intel. It also enabled AMD to transition relatively rapidly to the new manufacturing node. “This has been the quickest process for any Opteron processors we’ve developed,” Demski told me.

According to him, AMD moved up the launch of the Shanghai chips about three months, which he said was originally slated for Q1 2009. My recollection from last year is that AMD promised 45nm parts in the middle of 2008, which I always thought was a long shot. Certainly Intel’s success with its 45nm Harpertown chips motivated AMD to push out its Opteron contender as quickly as possible. The original plan was to build HyperTransport 3.0 into Shanghai for faster (17.6 GB/s) chip-to-chip communication, but collapsing the product timeline meant it had to stick with slower HT 1.0 for the initial launch. In Q2 2009, all the Shanghai chips will move to HT 3.0, at which point AMD will also bump the clock speed across the different power bands.

Shanghai is being positioned against Intel’s Harpertown (5400 series) processors. According to AMD, the new chips match the comparable Harpertowns on integer performance (SPECint_rate2006) and are about 34 percent better on floating point (SPECfp_rate2006), while memory bandwidth is nearly twice as good. Shanghai will almost certainly provide better energy efficiency than their Intel competition because of the use of power-hungry FB-DIMMs in Harpertown-based systems.

And since the 5400s use the older front-side-bus technology, AMD can still exploit the advantages of its on-chip memory controllers and HyperTransport/Direct Connect Architecture, but this will be the last time it will be able to do so. Early next year, Intel is expected to launch its first Nehalem server parts, which will incorporate on-chip memory controllers and a HyperTransport-like QuickPath Interconnect (QPI). AMD intends to answer Nehalem with its 6-core “Istanbul” processor toward the latter half of 2009, which will also be socket compatible with Rev F.

Of course, this is a tough business climate to be launching new products, given that it’s the end of capitalism and all. And AMD is probably resigned to the fact that Nehalem will outperform the Shanghai, and perhaps even Istanbul. But in speaking with Demski, it sounded like AMD was hoping the recession might actually help the company’s message in the server market. The theory is that customers would be more likely to plug faster Opteron processors into existing systems than perform an expensive forklift upgrade, as will be required for the new Nehalem-based machines. AMD was apparently spreading this talking point around. Over at InfoWorld, Tom Yager writes:

Intel’s messaging is all about the future, but AMD takes an interesting view that’s more in line with the perspective of buyers: Squeeze the longest possible life out of the gear you bought two years ago, and keep the machine you buy today upgradable to state-of-the-art performance with nothing but a CPU swap.

It’s certainly a reasonable line of thinking, but the fact is that neither chipmaker is likely to have a good fourth quarter, or a good 2009. Intel recently cut its forecast for Q4 noting that “revenue is being affected by significantly weaker-than-expected demand in all geographies and market segments.” That reflects this week’s IDC report in which it cut its previous IT spending forecast in half — from 5.9 percent to 2.6 percent.

So both chipmakers are likely to shed workers over the next 12 months. Even if the HPC segment remains strong during the recession, the upshot of R&D cutbacks at Intel, AMD and other big players will likely slow product innovation and development, which could have longer term effects on high performance computing.

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