What Constitutes A 'Core'? System Builders Say AMD Bulldozer Suit Points Up Vague Industry Standards

A customer's lawsuit -- alleging chip manufacturer AMD misrepresented the specifications of its CPUs running on its Bulldozer architecture -- highlights the vague industry standard of what constitutes a core, system builders said.

According to the suit, filed by consumer Tony Dickey, AMD's Bulldozer CPUs are designed around 4 component-sharing "modules" as opposed to 8 independent cores, and the suit alleges that the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company therefore misrepresented performance and speed specifications of the processors.

System builders, for their part, stressed that Intel and AMD partners play an important role in bringing their own expertise to help customers navigate the sometimes complicated computing dynamics while they're picking processors.

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"I think this is a complicated issue -- to ask courts to decide what constitutes a core in a processor -- particularly when you start adding cellphone processors, desktop processors, server processors, graphics processors and more to the discussion," said Kent Tibbils, vice president of marketing at ASI Corp., a Fremont, Calif.-based system builder. "Ultimately, resellers can really differentiate themselves by being able to help customers select the right processor based on performance and functionality. It’s not easy and takes time, but that expertise is what individual and business consumers will really appreciate."

AMD did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit before publication.

Running on the claim that it was the "industry's only 8-core desktop processor," AMD's Bulldozer CPU architecture, released in 2011, was targeted toward high-end-PC enthusiasts.

The Bulldozer chips, based on AMD's 32nm architecture Zambezi design, come with about 2 billion transistors, can go as high as 4.2GHz, and overclock at 8.429GHz.

An 8-core CPU is significant for PC enthusiasts and gamers, because a CPU with this many cores can perform eight calculations simultaneously and independently. If one core becomes overwhelmed with one task, for example, other cores can handle other calculations so the PC can continue performing quickly.

But according to the lawsuit, AMD's Bulldozer-based CPUs contain 4 modules that share components as opposed to 8 independent cores, thus violating the Consumer Legal Remedies Act and California's Unfair Competition Law, the suit claims.

Andrew Kretzer, director of sales and marketing at Bold Data Technology, a Fremont, Calif.-based system builder, said the trial could hinge on unclear definitions of what actually constitutes a CPU core.

"We have not heard any complaints -- yet -- from customers who have purchased this product line from us," he said. "This could be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back. Our customers [absolutely] look at core count when they look to purchase CPUs and computer systems based upon those CPUs."

Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy, a leading tech analyst firm based in Austin, Texas, said the lack of an industry standard for what a CPU core actually entails will throw the lawsuit into question, however.

"At first glance, this looks like a real stretch," said Moorhead. "I don’t believe there’s an industry standard for what constitutes a CPU core and the definition gets blurrier as more compute functions emerge, like GPUs [graphics processing units], FPGAs [field-programmable gate arrays] and DSPs [digital signal processors]. … I don’t think this will mean anything for either AMD or [processor-manufacturing competitor] Intel, as this suit looks on the surface like a real stretch."

The lawsuit comes as AMD is preparing to release its newest CPU platform in 2016, the Zen architecture.

Zen will offer 40 percent performance improvement over the Bulldozer platform, according to AMD, and will contain new features such as simultaneous multithreading.