Intel, AMD Square Off With Nehalem And Shanghai

Intel, Santa Clara, Calif., and Advanced Micro Devices, Sunnyvale, Calif., are finally back to where it all started when the personal computer boom kicked off in the early 1980s -- squaring off with chips that bear more similarities than differences. That sets the stage for the kind of competition between the two main x86 microprocessor makers that has system builders like Brian Corn energized for a lively 2009.

"We're really going to be able to finally have an 'apples-to-apples' comparison on performance," said Corn, VP of marketing at Source Code, Waltham, Mass., discussing how Intel's new Nehalem processors will stack up against AMD's recently launched Shanghai chips.

"The next statistic to look at is who has the best power consumption. If you can have both the performance and power consumption lead, that'll be the crown jewel. AMD's new 45-nanometer chips look great out of the gate, but Intel's holding back on some of their information about Nehalem on the server side, so they might have an ace up their sleeve."

That ace could simply be a straight transport of the new Core i7 desktop processors' stunning power to Nehalem-based server chips to debut under the successful Xeon brand in the first quarter of next year. CRN's Test Center describes the Core i7-965 Extreme Edition, among the first chips in the Nehalem class to be released by Intel, as having "the potential to drive current data center-class performance onto the desktop."

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In other words, if the top Nehalem client chip could power a killer server, what is the fastest server processor going to look like when Intel drops it on the market?

AMD's play with its 45nm Shanghai client and server processors probably won't be to run them up against Intel's top-of-the-line Nehalem chips. Intel currently dominates the high-end of the x86 microprocessor market and will surely continue to do so in the coming days. AMD's value proposition will be in the middle portion of the market, where the smaller vendor will try to make the case that its chips offer a combination of energy efficiency advantages and capital expenditure savings for platform refreshes over Intel.

Corn first vocalized his excitement about the upcoming battle between Intel and AMD more than a year ago, when he pinpointed the current convergence of the two chip maker's product roadmaps as the beginning of an epic battle for CPU supremacy. That's because the two main x86 microprocessor makers took divergent architectural paths over the past decade, but in many ways return to the same general thoroughfare with the coming ramp of Intel's new Nehalem chips and AMD's 45nm Shanghai transition.

Intel's Nehalem micro-architecture, first represented in three Core i7 desktop processors released this past Monday, eliminates the Front Side Bus, integrates the memory controller on the die itself and independently powers each of the processor cores in these multicore chips for a "native" multicore design similar to the one that AMD embraced several years ago.

AMD, in transitioning to the 45nm fabrication process Intel pioneered a year ago, will match its larger rival on that technology node until Intel makes its next major transition to 32nm late next year.

The first products to emerge in this renewed battle aren't exactly alike. Intel's first publicly available Nehalem products are desktop chips, including the Core i7-965 Extreme Edition, a blazing-fast 3.2GHz quad-core processor with 8MB of L3 cache that is priced at $999, or about $500 less than the top Intel quad-core built on the older Core 2 architecture. AMD, on the other hand, introduced its 45nm process on Nov. 13 with nine new Opteron server processors that feature higher clock speeds than the previous Barcelona generation for equivalent prices.

But as Intel and AMD build out Nehalem and Shanghai across more product lines, the "apples-to-apples" scenario Corn anticipates will really start to materialize. Intel already has Nehalem server chip samples in the channel, with a DP part planned for release in the first quarter of 2009 and MP parts scheduled for later in the year. AMD recently confirmed that it is following the schedule established with its first quad-core processors released late last year. That means the 45nm Shanghai server chips officially unveiled on Nov. 13 should be followed in about two or three months by 45nm desktop chips code-named Deneb (quad-core) and Heka (triple-core).

Next: Enter Nehalem

Intel officially lifted the curtains on the Core i7 this past Monday at three different global locations, kicking off with a "Midnight Madness"-style block party in Tokyo. Events in San Francisco and New York rounded out the slate.

System builders, software developers and other guests were floored by the new processors' raw power at the San Francisco launch party, held in the city's new hipster mecca, Dogpatch Studios.

"It's a lot faster than I'm used to," said one 3D animator, referring to a custom-built Core i7-965 Extreme Edition desktop built by Puget Systems, Kent, Wash. The first Nehalem lineup also includes the Core i7-940 (2.93GHz, 8MB L3 Cache, $562) and the Core i7-920 (2.66GHz, 8MB L3 Cache, $284).

CRN's Test Center, reviewing the Core i-965 Extreme Edition on Intel's DX58SO Extreme Series "SmackOver" motherboard, described "nearly historic levels of improvement over previous generations of processors." Intel's move to DDR3 memory on upcoming Nehalem server chips is a big leap forward, said Source Code's Corn. But as of late October he was still concerned about the availability of memory to meet the new processors' demands.

"They're integrating the memory controller and with the QuickPath interface they'll compete right up against [AMD's] HyperTransport. It's triple channel DDR3 memory, so you start running three DIMMs at a time and we should see some spectacular memory performance," Corn said. "But I haven't been able to get any memory manufacturers to get me 1600MHz on hand yet, so I haven't had chance to test yet."

Others in the channel voiced concerns about the immediate availability of memory, graphics and other components to build around Nehalem, but Intel's Steve Dallman said about a week ahead of the Core i7 launch that those issues had been addressed successfully.

"I'm really glad you didn't ask me six months ago," said Dallman, Intel's worldwide reseller channel chief, when queried directly in early November about components availability in the first weeks after the Core i7 launch. "But today I'm feeling really good. Six months ago we were really worried about chassis availability and who would get certification on the X58 chipset.

"But now we're in excellent shape with the mainstream chassis guys. The board is incredibly solid from our perspective and has been shipping into the channel for a week or two. After the chassis, the boards and the CPUs, it's the regular mix and match on hard disks, etc.

"And look, memory is out there and available," he added. "Luckily, we put DDR3 memory on our earlier Extreme products. Right now we don't have any major gaps in components."

With regards to the new Core i7 desktop chips, system builders say that sounds about right because DDR3 on the client side is not new. But questions still remain about the new memory requirements on the server side, where Intel is also moving to DDR3. AMD is sticking with DDR2 for its newest server chips and has chosen to wait until 2010 to transition to DDR3, according to the smaller chip maker.

It may also take some time for software developers to fully embrace Intel's new triple-channel memory architecture, said Philip Pokorny, chief architect at Penguin Computing, San Francisco, Calif.

"Developers are going to have trouble with DDR3, because Intel is introducing a new prime number to write to, and the 'power of three' is harder than the 'power of two' that programmers are used to. Writing for three memory channels is tough for a software engineer," Pokorny said. "My guess is we'll see customers and applications vendors needing to take time to optimize for a new platform and a memory allocation system on three channels."

Next: Destination Shanghai

AMD on Nov. 13 unveiled the first nine Shanghai processors for two-, four- and eight-socket x86 servers in its Opteron stable. These include five Opteron 2000 series chips ranging in clock speed from 2.3GHz to 2.7GHz and four Opteron 8000 series chips ranging from 2.4GHz to 2.7GHz.

All nine quad-core chips are socket compatible with the previous Barcelona generation and slot into the 75W thermal envelope. AMD is also set to introduce 55W and 105W versions of 45nm Opteron processors in the first-quarter timeframe, the company said.

Joe Toste, VP of marketing at Equus Computing, Minneapolis, Minn., thinks Intel and AMD have directly opposing problems of perception going forward with their new chips. Intel's Nehalem drops into a new socket and requires a platform refresh, which is why questions have been raised about whether the rest of the hardware ecosystem is going to be ready out of the gate. But there are no doubts, Toste said, that Intel will be able to deliver its own new products quickly and in volume.

AMD's Shanghai, on the other hand, is socket compatible with the previous Opteron generation, code-named Barcelona, that was released in September 2007. That means the ecosystem is already in place for AMD's delivery of its first 45nm chips. But as Toste points out, the smaller chip maker still suffers from the bad taste left in the channel by the sluggish ramp of Barcelona and a glitch on that chip that caused volume distribution to be delayed for about five months after Barcelona's September 2007 release date.

AMD will simply have to prove it is able to deliver its new parts, say market watchers. But the first reviews of Shanghai have been glowing. CRN's Test Center found that a pair of the new 2.7GHz Opteron 2384 processors outperformed a pair of Intel's Xeon E8450 chips while consuming less power.

And some system integrators, wary of AMD after a rough couple of years in its relationship with the channel, sound ready to give the chip maker a second chance.

"I like what they are doing with Opteron in terms of power consumption and virtualization. I have not been a big AMD fan, but I think I'll have to look at them again," said Mitch Miller, president of Dynamic Computer Solutions, Topeka, Kan.

Some of AMD's biggest advocates are builders of high-performance computer clusters, like John Lee, VP of Advanced Technology Solutions at Milpitas, Calif.-based Appro International. Lee believes Shanghai solidifies the chip maker's position in the four-socket server space.

"The advantages of four-socket, utilizing the Direct Connect architecture, are huge. With HyperTransport, it makes migration very easy and affordable. Performance scales linearly," Lee said.

"We're very excited to launch general-purpose servers, commodity clusters and supercomputers on Shanghai. Customers are testing Shanghai systems now and they are seeing improved performance while consuming less power."

Next: Rivalry and Cooperation

Even as Intel and AMD go head-to-head on CPUs, the graphics side of AMD's house actually stands to gain from its long time rival's success with Nehalem. AMD acquired graphics chip maker ATI more than two years ago, but it still takes some getting used to when an AMD spokesperson like Rick Bergman openly praises Intel's Core i7, as he did in a recent chat with CRN.

Bergman, the GM of AMD's Graphics Product Group, has reason to hope for steady adoption of Intel's new desktop chips, particularly the Core i7-965, which is already being called the best desktop processor on the market by CRN's Test Center, among other reviewers.

That's because AMD's discrete graphics products stand to benefit from Core i7 sales right out of the gate for a couple of reasons. For one, AMD appears to have wrested the GPU performance crown from market leader Nvidia, Santa Clara, Calif., with its ATI Radeon HD 4000 series of graphics cards, particularly the Radeon HD 4870 X2. Another is that AMD was quicker to validate its CrossFire technology for the new Core i7 platforms than Nvidia was to greenlight Intel's X58 chipset for SLI, as confirmed at the San Francisco Core i7 launch by Pat Gelsinger, GM of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group.

The top two parts in the initial Core i7 lineup are tailor-made for enthusiast rigs and the "mainstream" 2.66GHz chip is a monster in its own right, meaning discrete graphics are going to be added to most systems featuring Intel's newest desktop processors. Right now, anecdotal evidence suggests AMD is winning the battle to get its cards into Core i7 systems -- of about a dozen custom-built Core i7-965, Core i7-940 and Core i7-920 rigs showcased at the San Francisco event, two-thirds featured ATI graphics.

Don't count Nvidia out for long, though -- CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, while admitting recently that the performance of the top ATI cards had taken Nvidia by surprise, promised his company would have an answer early next year.

And don't count on some synergy between Intel and AMD over high-end graphics to be the dominant story in the months ahead for these two bitter rivals. Especially worth watching will be the introduction of DDR3 on the upcoming Nehalem server chips, a crucial area where Nehalem and Shanghai, for all their similarities, will be very distinct.

Benchmarking battles will also be fought over the new features built into the chip makers' new processors that handle increasingly important technologies such as power management and virtualization. And the rate of adoption for Nehalem and Shanghai could be very different, particularly in the part of the IT reseller channel serving commercial customers and data centers.

Even in the best of times, IT purchasers are wary of moving quickly towards an entirely new hardware platform and the upfront expenditures that entails. In this uncertain economy, it's unclear how fast even stunning new technology like Intel's Nehalem architecture will be adopted. One regional system builder and major Intel partner told ChannelWeb he expects to still be delivering nine out of 10 processors based on the older Core architecture well into 2009. AMD's Shanghai chips, on the other hand, drop right into existing Barcelona platforms and that could mean a more robust initial reception for the new Opterons relative to existing market share.

The upside for the channel is that in these tight economic times, a clear-cut winner on value between Intel and AMD should trump brand loyalty, according to system integrator Cameron Janzen.

"People are way more open-minded to other technologies when it means a better bottom line for them," said Janzen, VP of marketing at Pro-Data, Calgary, Alberta, at the recent Xchange Tech Innovators event in San Jose, Calif.

May the best chip win.