Source: AMD Moves Up Istanbul Launch To Counter Intel's Nehalem

Advanced Micro Devices is maintaining a reserved attitude towards Intel's powerful new Nehalem server chips, going so far as to publicly congratulate its larger rival in the x86 microprocessor market Tuesday "on the performance of its all-new processors and the attending all-new OEM platforms."

What AMD isn't saying, officially at least, is that in response to the fanfare around Intel's Xeon 5500 series processors, the smaller company has moved up the release of a new six-core server chip code named Istanbul from the second half of this year to June, according to a white-box partner of both companies.

"What they are going to do is pull in the Istanbul launch towards the first half, specifically in June," said the partner, who asked that his name not be used. The source, who represents a Midwest-based custom system integrator, told that the new release date came directly from AMD communications with channel partners under a non-disclosure agreement.

Istanbul is the next step on AMD's product road map for the 45-nanometer Opteron server chips, formerly code-named Shanghai that debuted in quad-core variations last November.

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Beating the targets in the official product road map would not be a new feat for AMD in the Shanghai generation. The chip maker was early with its first 45nm Opteron parts last year, thanks to "an exceptionally smooth validation process," according to the company. Meanwhile, AMD CEO Dirk Meyer said late last month that the chip maker would have 32nm chips in the fourth quarter of 2010. With Intel ramping its own 32nm process at the end of this year, that transition time frame for AMD could decrease the lag time it experienced following Intel on 45nm by about a quarter.

As for Istanbul, AMD's John Taylor referenced the processor in his Tuesday blog outlining the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based chip maker's stance on Intel's Monday release of its new Xeon lineup. But Taylor, director of global platform and product communications at AMD, wrote that the six-core chip was "on deck for 2H09."

That official line was echoed by Margaret Lewis, director of commercial solutions at AMD, in an interview Tuesday with ChannelWeb.

"We'll be moving forward to Istanbul, our six-core processor, in the second half of this year. But we do it in the same power envelope and socket [as AMD's current Shanghai-generation server chips], so the idea is to give people the ability to further improve their server environment but not at the cost of de-featuring the processor," she said.

Lewis did say that in April, AMD would be releasing a new Shanghai-class server chip with an even lower power draw than the chip maker's current leader in that category, the quad-core 2.3GHz Opteron 8376HE, which draws 55 watts by AMD's Average CPU Power (ACP) rating system. The lowest power band in Intel's new Xeon 5500 series is 38 watts for an embedded processer, the dual-core 2.0GHz Xeon L5508, and 60 watts for three other new quad-core Nehalem-based chips, one built for embedded systems and a pair for two-socket servers.

To add to the confusion, Intel uses the Thermal Design Power (TDP) scheme to classify a processor's power draw, which produces slightly higher numbers than the ACP value. Thus 55 watts on the ACP scale translates to 68 watts under TDP. AMD's message is that the ACP rating more accurately reflects processor thermals while running "relevant commercially useful high-utilization workloads."

Next: AMD Hunkers Down

AMD on Tuesday seemed to be retreating to a position familiar to it in the past few years -- a concession that with Nehalem, Intel may own the flat-out performance crown at the high end of its offerings, but that AMD's story is about price-for-performance, energy efficiency, investment protection and overall value for the majority of customers.

"If you look at the market for servers in general, only about 5 percent of the market buys the top-speed-in-the-bin processor. The majority buys the midrange product. In our own mix, you'll even see that AMD sells 20 to 25 percent of our processors in the low power range. Our customers aren't necessarily looking for the highest performance processor," Lewis said. She also questioned the real cost in terms of power for record-shattering marks the Xeon 5500 series is achieving on virtualization benchmarks.

Taylor, declaring "this competition is far from over," added criticism of the price and power draw of DDR3 memory, featured exclusively in Intel's new server architecture. AMD won't transition its Opteron platform from cheaper DDR2 until 2010.

The custom system builder who said Istanbul's release date had been pulled in wasn't buying much of it and called into question several of AMD's corporate moves in the past few years.

"On the whole price thing, look, it's not a good position for AMD to be in the server market. The difference between $50 for a processor and $100 for a processor doesn't matter much to us," he said. "But it all boils down to, they shouldn't have bought ATI, they shouldn't have signed Dell and it distracted them from focusing on the channel. Then Intel pulled their head out of their a-- and reinvented their architecture and here we are," he said.

Still, the same source, while impressed with the Xeon 5500 series on performance grounds, was less than charitable about Intel's relationship with smaller partners on the Nehalem launch.

"It's been tough for the white-box guys, because there was no information available on part numbers and pricing from the distributors until launch day. The Tier 1s had all that weeks in advance," he said.

Another source from a West Coast-based Intel partner company that makes custom high-end systems confirmed the lack of visibility into component availability ahead of the Nehalem launch. The partner, who also asked not to be named, specifically said chassis and power supplies were difficult for partners below the Tier 1 and Tier 2 level to source in advance of Monday.

Still other channel partners, like Paul Ling of EPROM Computer Systems in Markham, Ontario, seemed bemused by the whole affair, saying that the very latest products from either Intel or AMD rarely played a part in their business activities. Companies with limited white-box offerings like EPROM and Glasgow, Ky.-based Ultratech Computer Systems, anticipated few of their customers demanding either Nehalem or Shanghai products any time soon.

"We're not in the middle of a hotbed of technology by any means," said Ultratech's John Berry. "We're the IT shop for little doctor's and dentist's offices, that sort of thing. Invariably, for most of the businesses that we work for, they don't need a quad-core Xeon processor sitting there glowing in the dark."

Berry said his company sold "maybe a dozen new systems in a good month" but that even that small number had fallen off during the current economic recession.