AMD Launches Long-Awaited Barcelona Quad-Core

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.

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"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.

NEXT: Too Little, Too Late For AMD? Too Little, Too Late?

For all the enthusiasm in the OEM and system builder channel for Barcelona -- and it really is genuine -- questions still remain about AMD's quad-core offering.

For starters, AMD has posted an operating loss for three straight quarters. It's questionable whether Barcelona's impact will be felt soon enough to turn things around before Q4 of 2007 or even well into 2008. The chipmaker publicly blames its woes on what it frequently describes as the "monopolistic practices" of its chief rival, Intel. Yet even AMD executives concede that the lack of any quad-core product to stack up against Intel's for so many months has been damaging.

"Our competitor may have enjoyed a brief window of exclusivity in offering a quad-core product, but that window is shut," AMD CEO Hector Ruiz told ChannelWeb, putting as bright a face as possible on what will have been a 271-day "window of exclusivity" for Intel in the quad-core market.

Former chief sales and marketing officer Henri Richard was even blunter at AMD's Analyst Day in July.

"Right now, there's parts of the market where I can't compete," he said during a press conference at AMD's Sunnyvale, Calif. campus, describing AMD's lack of a quad-core product until Barcelona starts shipping.

Richard left AMD in late August to take a job at Freescale Semiconductor, which brings up another possible sore point for the chipmaker -- a recent rash of resignations by top executives. In addition to the outspoken Richard, two executives who came to AMD from graphics chipmaker ATI following its acquisition last October have also left. Former ATI CEO David Orton resigned in late July and Rick Hegberg, senior vice president of worldwide sales at AMD, left Sept. 4.

At first glance, the long wait for Barcelona presents a stark contrast to the conditions under which AMD achieved some of its greatest triumphs, first with the initial Opteron offering and later with its dual-core product, both of which put Intel on its back foot for several quarters. But look a bit closer, and the circumstances aren't as different as they seem, say AMD executives, channel partners and analysts.

Ruiz says AMD has prepared its Tier 1 OEMs and channel partners to hit the ground running from Barcelona's launch date.

"We have nine validated server platforms at launch, a first for AMD, and AMD's channel partners can be early to market with Quad-Core AMD Opteron processor-based solutions. We have more than 50 quad-core-ready platforms available through leading OEMs like Acer, Cray, Dell, Egenera, Fujitsu-Siemens Computers, Gateway HP, IBM and Sun for the VAR community. All of these are upgradeable to Quad-Core AMD Opteron processors with a switch of the chip and a BIOS flash," he says.

Mercury Research analyst Dean McCarron thinks the pace at which AMD is planning to get its x86 quad-core into servers and workstations makes up for some of the time lost to Intel.

"The product that AMD is introducing will drop into exisiting dual-core server sockets pretty easily. A lot of their OEM customers are waiting for this product to do a platform refresh themselves. We should see a rapid conversion to Barcelona products, basically right at launch," McCarron says.

The analyst thinks the gains AMD made in the market with the first edition of Opteron will pay off in a rapid rollout of Barcelona.

"What we'll end up seeing is a repeat of what we saw with the original Opteron. It did take several years for them to get significant presence with the original Opteron, to get those Tier 1 OEMs. And now they have the OEMs to drop in quad-core, and waiting for it. So the ramp-up for the quad-core is likely to be significantly faster than with the original Opteron. Factor in the time AMD has fallen behind Intel on quad-core, and it about evens out," he says.

NEXT: System Builders Good to Go Good to Go

Tier 1 OEM Hewlett-Packard, which ships 37 percent of all Opteron-based servers, says it will start shipping AMD quad-core systems through its x86 ProLiant line beginning in Q4.

AMD platinum partner Appro International is "completely ready to go with quad-core" but it may take some time to get systems shipped because customers will need to do benchmark testing before the purchase, says Maria McLaughlin, director of marketing at the Milpitas, Calif.-based high-performance computing OEM. "We're putting together a lot of big deals with Barcelona already. But the sales cycle takes a lot of time. We're cooking up a big deal that we'll announce in October with a major data center," she says.

McLaughlin says AMD provided Appro with Barcelona samples with plenty of time to spare ahead of today's launch.

"We had one at LinuxWorld [in mid-August] that was pretty good, but now as far as the BIOS goes, it's really good. Everything they've been stating in terms of power, and memory in terms of bandwidth, and having the native quad-core and floating point, have been the biggest things for processor-intensive computing," she says.

Other partners haven't been as pleased with the release of samples. Dominic Daninger of Nor-Tech subsidiary REASON, says he'd have liked to receive Barcelona samples sooner. He suspects that issues with processor speed caused sample delays, not to mention the delay of the product release itself.

"I think they had a lot of trouble getting the speed up to where they'd like to have it. A lot of what you read over the last several months is that they had trouble with that. But I've also heard that the silicon for the Phenom is really coming out well, as far as speed," says Daninger, vice president of engineering at the Burnsville, Minn.-based maker of high-end engineering workstations.

Rumors of dissatisfaction about sample release were not lost on Intel. A spokesperson for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip leader told ChannelWeb, "Usually before a major launch, we have samples out at least a month before."

AMD might not have quite the "game-changer" it says it does, but if the chipmaker's main claims about Barcelona prove to be accurate, Daninger says they'll have a saleable product on their hands.

"It was a leapfrog game, and AMD leaped Intel, and now Intel has at least caught up and moved ahead in some areas. I'm not sure if there's going to be an AMD leap ahead of Intel this time. But we're hoping it proves out to be a very powerful floating point. If two of the benchmark areas, the floating point and the handling of massive amounts of memory, prove to be very strong, we'll have some interesting products to bring to market," he says.

Velocity Micro's Copeland expects that AMD's quad-core family of processors will find reasonable purchase in his shop.

"We've been as high as 80 percent AMD, and then when Core 2 Duo came along, it went to 90:10 Intel, almost overnight. But when Phenom arrives, I expect we'll move to about 75:25 Intel. Once we've got benchmarks, that could go higher," Copeland says.

Rain Recording's Paschick may have spent two decades selling Intel, but talk to him on the eve of Barcelona's launch and he almost sounds like an AMD evangelist. He says a 50-50 split between Intel and AMD product in his shop is not out of the realm of possibility, and he has some choice words for Intel, should the chip leader become complacent with its current market dominance.

"Intel, in my opinion, is holding the industry hostage on the mobile platform. Somebody like a Dell, like a Gateway, like a Tier 1, taught the marketplace that you can have a notebook for under $400. And the cheapest Intel CPU in the system builder channel is over $200? There's inequity there," he says.

"We've seen this sort of thing before in our industry. When Sony came out with the Betamax, it was fantastic technology, but they wouldn't license out the transport tech. So JVC and Phillips came out with VHS and the rest is history. Intel's not going anywhere, but I think they're going to start feeling the winds of change."