AMD Restructures Around System-On-A-Chip Roadmap


Advanced Micro DevicesThursday launched a two-year product roadmap in which the company will shift toward making system-on-a-chip products for narrower market segments, such as cloud-powering data centers and ultra-thin laptops that Windows PC makers hope will grab share from Apple's MacBook Air.

What won't be available from AMD until 2014 are chips that can compete against ARM and Intel in the tablet market, which grew quickly last year at the expense of desktops and mainstream laptops. While tablets are in its sights in the future, the company has not released plans for smartphones, another fast-growing segment of the computer industry.

AMD laid out its roadmap at its annual meeting with financial analysts at its Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters. In describing their strategy to drive profits, executives said the company would not try to match Intel product for product. "You don't have to be the best at everything, but you have to be the best at a few things," Lisa Su, senior vice president and general manager of AMD's global business units, said.

Those things include Trinity, AMD's second-generation accelerated processing unit (APUs) targeted at ultra-thin laptops. APUs is what AMD calls its combined CPU and graphics processor on the same die. AMD is shipping Trinity to computer makers, which are expected to start selling product at mid-year. During her presentation, Su showed a reference design of an ultra-thin notebook from Taiwanese computer maker Compal Electronics. The system was seven-tenths of an inch thick.

An advantage Trinity will have over Intel's competing Ivy Bridge processor is price, according to AMD. The company believes computer makers who use its chip can ship ultra-thins in the $600 to $800 range, which is $100 to $200 less than systems currently in the market.

Trinity's successor in 2013 is code-named Kaveri, which will include elements of a new chip design called heterogeneous systems architecture. HSA, which is not expected to reach maturity until 2014, will boost performance through more internal bandwidth and by having a shared memory pool between the graphics processor and CPU. In addition, both processors can be used to run a common software application.

Besides ultra-thin computers, AMD's roadmap reflects a focus on low-power processors for mainstream laptops and servers. For notebooks, AMD is shipping this year its second-generation "Brazos" APU and the ultra-low-power "Hondo" APU. Next year, the company plans to ship their successors, "Kabini" and "Temash," respectively. These two products will be AMD's first system-on-a-chip, which means they will include AMD's Fusion Controller Hub chipset on the same die. FCH powers interfaces for devices that support high-speed connectors, such as USB 3.0.

In 2013, AMD plans to move all its desktop and notebook processors to 28 nanometers. Today, AMD has chips that are 40 nm, 32 nm and 28 nm. The smaller the chip architecture, the better the performance at lower power.

Missing from the lineup is a processor capable of running at 2 watts, while delivering the same or greater performance than the ARM chips used in tablets. AMD is not expected to have a product for that space until 2014. "We are going to go after that with a vengeance," Su said of the tablet market.

AMD will focus on low power within its server product line. The company is aiming for datacenters that power today's cloud environments, which typically have lots of processors on a single server running a variety of applications on virtual machines. Such systems require low power chips to reduce heat and lower cooling costs.

AMD is shipping this year "Valencia," the code name for AMD's energy-efficient server chip for one- and two-processor servers, while "Zurich" is for one processor systems used in Web hosting and Web servers. Their successors next year will be "Seoul" and "Delhi," respectively. The latter chips will introduce new processor cores, codenamed "Piledriver."

A key element to AMD's overall strategy is getting developers to build software for its future SoCs. The goal is to provide the tools, so developers can write applications in C++, a common coding language, and run them on the graphics processor and CPU. Today, graphics processors require a different set of development tools.

"It's really going to unlock developers to take advantage of the full compute capability," Mark Papermaster, senior vice president and chief technology officer for AMD, said.

AMD is hoping to attract third parties to work with it in building technology platforms for computer makers, freeing it from having to build everything on its own. This is a key difference with the much larger Intel, which controls everything from design to manufacturing. AMD's chips are built by Globalfoundries, which took over the company's former manufacturing operations.

Whether AMD can build an eco-system with developers and partners to compete with Intel, which has the money to acquire companies with the technology it needs, remains to be seen, Sergis Mushell, analyst for market researcher Gartner, said.

"Intel will buy pieces of the pie. AMD most likely will be partnering … the market will decide which strategy sounds more compelling," Mushell said.

In August 2011, AMD named Rory Read, a Lenovo executive, president and chief executive. Read replaced Derrick Meyer, who resigned in January. In November, Read cut 1,400 jobs, or about 10 percent of the company's workforce, as part of a restructuring.

In the fourth quarter of last year, AMD reported a $177 million loss, due mostly to a write-down caused by manufacturing problems at Globalfoundries that left some chips in short supply. That problem, according to AMD executives, has been corrected.

Overall, there are indications that the company is stabilizing. Standard & Poor's Ratings Services recently placed AMD on watch for a ratings increase, saying the company has shown higher and more stable levels of profitability over the last two years. AMD currently has a B-plus rating, which is four levels below investment grade.

Read assured analysts Thursday that the company was ready to execute on its strategy and win back market share. "This is our time. This is a different AMD," he said.