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There's no question the channel is eager to get its hands on Advanced Micro Devices' first quad-core x86 microprocessor. Monday's belated launch of the long-awaited server chip code-named Barcelona finally brings to market the "game-changing" technology AMD is promising with what it calls the "world's most advanced x86 processor ever designed and manufactured."
System builders who received samples a week or two ahead of today's worldwide launch say they aren't ready to issue benchmarks just yet. Nevertheless, sources tell ChannelWeb that the processor AMD calls "the first native quad-core" is faster than they had anticipated. They say three key advances are testing out as advertised -- a tri-level memory cache hierarchy with fully shared L3 cache for all four cores, a floating point unit with 2x128-bit loads/cycle, and independent power supplies for each of the processor's four cores and to the memory controller. The last feature distinguishes AMD's quad-core product from Intel's, in that it's possible to idle one, two or three CPU cores for a workload to better manage power consumption.
CMP Channel's Test Center last week received an engineering sample server equipped with dual Barcelona CPUs. After putting it through its paces, Frank Ohlhorst reports, "Those who have waited for the arrival of AMD's next generation CPU won't be disappointed."
As far as pricing, AMD is remaining tight-lipped about how it plans to scale its new quad-cores against Intel's or its own dual-core chips. Partners in the know say Barcelona will be "competitively priced." Market watchers say it will have to be, given Intel's recent slashing of its own quad-core prices down to levels nearly in line with its Core 2 Duo products.
"I expect that quad-cores are going to be similarly priced as dual-cores. From what we've seen, the price premiums are not significantly over the dual-core stuff," says Randall Copleand, CEO of Velocity Micro, a high-performance system builder based in Richmond, Va.
But beyond the technological or even economic appeal of Barcelona, channel partners and market watchers are just as excited about the prospect of AMD finally challenging market leader Intel with something new again. Intel launched its quad-core "Kentsfield" desktop and "Clovertown" server and workstation chips on Dec. 13, 2006. For system builders, from the Tier 1 giants down to the smallest custom shops, AMD's nearly year-long absence from the quad-core game has been an uncomfortable stretch, with options for building next-generation systems increasingly reduced to Intel or nothing.
"I don't want to paint Intel as the Evil Empire, but like with Microsoft, monopolies aren't good for us, and it's nice to see another player on the field. With Barcelona, AMD's showing that they're willing to give Intel a run for their money," says Bill Paschick, president of Rain Recording, a custom system builder specializing in digital audio workstations, notebooks and storage devices.
Rain Recording was an Intel-only shop for nearly 20 years. But recently, the Ringwood, N.J.-based system builder added its first AMD-based workstation, Solstice, to the three Intel-based workstation lines it sells.
Retailing at $1,499.95, the Solstice O1 is built on the AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core 5000+ with HyperTransport, featuring 2GB of RAM, a 250GB OS drive and a 250GB audio drive. The Solstice O2, selling for $1,799.95, has twice the RAM and audio drive space, and is powered by the Athlon 64 X2 6000+. Rain Recording's Solstice workstations are about $800 cheaper than the system builder's lowest-priced Intel-based products.
Paschick credits his company's embrace of AMD to the chipmaker's performance on platform delivery through its AMD Validated Solutions (AVS) program, which partners say has quantitatively addressed past issues with poorly matched third-party components and replacement delays.
"With AVS, we said, 'Whoa, we can actually do this and they're going to back up the motherboards and do a one-day replacement.' We even like it better than Intel [platform programs] in some respects. With AMD, we're getting a closed ecosystem like Intel's with the boardmakers. But Intel's are in-house, so with AMD you also get boardmakers who are only boardmakers, that is, the core competency of what the boardmakers do best," he says.
Paschick can't wait to build Solstice on an AMD desktop quad-core. According to AMD, its quad-core desktop CPU, Phenom, will be released before the end of the year.
"We found that the price-per-performance for our new Solstice computer, our first AMD computer, is phenomenal. It's our best at Rain Recording. We're preparing for the launch of the desktop quad-core. Another wonderful positive is that when they announce that chip, we'll be able to deploy the next day. Because their CPUs are so well designed, we don't have to redesign the controller chipsets from the ground up. That's something we've never been able to do with Intel," he says.