Custom Systems Best Sellers: x86 Chips

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What a difference a year makes. When 2006 was winding down, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. was riding high. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based chip maker had shipped dual core Opteron and Athlon processors ahead of its giant rival down the road in Santa Clara, and was cutting into Intel Corp.'s market share in the x86 market.

Those gains were reflected in The NDP Group's numbers for total channel share of the x86 market, but the wheels were already starting to come off AMD's magic bus. Intel, like a championship team that mailed it in for a few quarters before turning it on for the win, raced ahead of AMD to quad-core and then hit 45nm first in the third quarter of 2007.

Meanwhile, Intel's solid, long-standing relationships with its white box channel were paying off, even as AMD came under fire in the early part of 2007 for a dubious deal with Dell Inc., Round Rock, Texas, to favor the OEM with parts at the expense of its own channel. With numerous delays to AMD's quad-core Opteron server chips and newly branded Phenom desktop chips, the die was cast for AMD to lose the share it had gained from the chip leader.

There's a reason Intel's channel is so strong, said Joe Toste of Equus Computer Systems, a Minneapolis-based system builder. Toste, VP of marketing at Equus, pointed to Intel's whitebook channel efforts as a key differentiator from competitors.

"We're making 20 points on whitebooks. If I'm selling an Acer, I'm making 2 points," said Toste.

For AMD, a bounce back is going to depend on how quickly the smaller chip maker can ramp its quad-core Opterons, Toste said. AMD has fixed a glitch that halted volume shipments late last year and expects OEMs and system builders to have quad-core Opteron servers available in April.

New products, such as the unique triple-core Phenom processor and the well-reviewed 780 chipset series should also help, said Mercury Research analyst Dean McCarron. Of course, Intel has its own new devices and platforms as well, with the micro-architecture redesign code-named Nehalem garnering a great deal of excitement ahead of what Intel says will be a late-2008 release.

Toste said AMD's Opteron chips, formerly code-named Barcelona, have some architectural advantages over Intel, but the window is closing fast as Nehalem approaches.

"The availability of Barcelona in the channel is in April. They'll have about eight months or so on Nehalem. I think the later they are with Barcelona with relation to Nehalem, the less time they have to make hay," Toste said.

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