AMD has sought to reassure customers that the problems that delayed its previous server chip, Barcelona, are a thing of the past. The company said its Shanghai processor is on track to ship in servers by the end of the year.
AMD shipped the first quad-core Barcelona processors last September but halted sales soon after when a bug was found in the chip's cache memory. It didn't resume volume shipments for about six months, damaging AMD's reputation and costing it valuable market share to Intel.
Pat Patla, general manager of AMD's server and workstation group, said yesterday that AMD has overhauled its testing process to avoid similar problems with Shanghai, another four-core processor that is being manufactured with a more advanced, 45nm process.
"We realised with Shanghai that we'd have to turn out a product early that had the stability and the health to make [server vendors] get engaged," he told reporters in San Francisco. "We realised their experience with Barcelona wasn't ideal."
AMD appointed a veteran engineer, Raghuram Tupuri, to close gaps in AMD's testing and validation processes. And it worked more closely with server vendors early on to ensure that the first samples of Shanghai, delivered around the end of February, were of higher quality, Patla said.
In a sign of how confidence in AMD had eroded, Patla said some server makers were still "a little hesitant" about working with the first Shanghai samples, and AMD had to ship them complete systems for them to test them.
He said he's now confident that the first Shanghai chip, a "mainstream" processor running at 75W, will be available in servers in the fourth quarter. Two other models will ship in the first quarter next year: a low-power, 55W version for blade servers, and a high-power, 105W version for large, "number-crunching" machines.
Jim McGregor, a principal analyst with In-Stat, said AMD is still in "proving itself mode" with customers, but he noted that the move to Shanghai will be a smaller one than the leap AMD made to get from its dual-core processor design to Barcelona. "They've made the transition to Barcelona and the native quad-core design so they've done the heavy lifting," he said.
Shanghai will give a 35 percent performance boost over Barcelona on average - meaning more for some applications and less for others - and consume 35 percent less power, according to Patla. The improvements come partly from the move from a 65nm to 45nm manufacturing process and a larger 6MB Level 3 cache. In addition, the Shanghai cores will run at a higher clockspeed than those of Barcelona, but those details, along with pricing, won't be announced until the chip is closer to launch.
To go with Shanghai, AMD is building its second-ever server chipset - it developed the first to go with its first Opteron processor about five years ago, but since then the chipsets have been made by Nvidia and Broadcom. Code-named Fiorano, the new chipset will be socket-compatible with the Barcelona chipsets, but will use a "virtualized I/O" and AMD's Hypertransport 3 technology for boosting data transfer speeds between components.
Patla said AMD wants to "take control" of its chipsets as it aims for specific market segments like virtualisation, which Shanghai will be geared toward. Nvidia and Broadcom have said they will continue making AMD chipsets until the end of 2009; after that their future with AMD is unclear.
Fiorano will also work with the follow-on to Shanghai, a six-core processor code-named Istanbul, due in the second half of 2009. The following year, in mid-2010, AMD will release another six-core processor, Sao Paulo, and a 12-core processor, Magny-Cours, named after a motor racing track in France. These are all code names for chips that will become part of AMD's Opteron family.
Sao Palo and Magny-Cours will get another new chipset, code-named Maranello, which will move customers to a new socket design and a faster, DDR3 memory.
Intel, meanwhile, is not standing still. After being late to market with a 64-bit processor that would also run 32-bit applications well, the company recovered ground and in mid-September shipped its first six-core Xeon processor, the 7400 series, also known as Dunnington. Next year it plans to release an eight-core processor dubbed Nehalem, and in the past has talked about working on 80-core processors in its labs.
The challenge for customers is finding software that can take full advantage of the multi-core capabilities. Virtualisation is seen as one beneficiary, since virtual machines can be assigned to individual processor cores - hence AMD's push to position Shanghai and Fiorano as a good platform for virtualisation.
AMD's server line-up is "still competitive with Intel, but do they have the edge they had before? No," McGregor said. "Intel is back with a vengeance and if anything AMD needs to be more competitive than it was. We need to see them become hungry again."
An important part of AMD's strategy is that it retains socket compatibility from one processor family to the next, he said, which is attractive to some customers.
AMD, which has been struggling financially, is expected to announce a plan soon to spin off its chip fabrication plants in order to lower its capital costs. Patla declined Tuesday to discuss that strategy, which AMD calls "asset smart". It expects to make an announcement by the end of the year, he said.