AMD Pins Hopes On Hardcastle

Advanced Micro Devices is banking on its first commercial desktop platform to help accelerate its path to profitability by the end of the third quarter as per guidance given by AMD CEO Hector Ruiz in late December and reiterated in the chip maker's first-quarter earnings call earlier this month.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company on Monday introduced the commercial desktop client platform, codenamed Hardcastle, as part of its AMD Business Class initiative, which will also include commercial notebooks based on AMD's upcoming Puma mobile platform, projected for availability this quarter. The initial desktop offerings from AMD and its partners are generally tailored for SMB, mid-market and public-sector deployments, while enterprise-class SKUs will be available later, said Hal Speed, an AMD marketing executive.

"The two important components of AMD Business Class are that it meets both the unique needs of OEMs and the unique needs of system builders," Speed said.

Large computer manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer, Lenovo and Fujitsu-Siemens have committed to building Hardcastle-based commercial desktop systems, Speed said. HP on Monday announced two new AMD Business Class models, the HP Compaq dc5850 Business Desktop PC, available worldwide May 5 with a starting U.S. list price of $599, and the HP Compaq dx2450, currently available in North America with a starting US list price of $369. The HP Compaq dx2355 will also be available in the Asia-Pacific market later this quarter.

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Dell's first AMD Business Class offering is a refreshed OptiPlex 740, while Fujitsu-Siemens has announced two new products built on the platform, the Esprimo E5625 and the more expensive P5625. Lenovo is preparing the desktop market for its enterprise-class ThinkCentre A61 and more SMB-oriented A61e, and Acer will counter with its Veriton M420.

After reporting another loss in its recent first-quarter earnings call -- AMD's sixth straight quarter in the red -- the chip maker has had to tighten its belt considerably, announcing layoffs to the tune of 10 percent of its workforce by Q3 even as Ruiz has pledged to trim non-core businesses from the company's holdings.

But things might not be as bleak for AMD as they appear, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. Winning significant deals with HP and others, despite well-publicized delays for AMD's quad-core server and desktop parts, could go a long way towards turning things around for the beleaguered chip maker, McCarron said.

"We're actually starting to see the very initial phase of acceptance for the AMD-ATI integration. This current launch [of the 780 series chipsets] is the first really integrated product between AMD and ATI. Before, a lot of the integration was really just putting an AMD label on an ATI product. So far, things look like acceptance is going well for the new chipsets," he said.

"We're right in the middle of the Spring refresh design phase and it sounds like they're getting some decent design wins."

HP in particular has been a friend to AMD in tough times. Even as Dell in early February dropped AMD's consumer PCs from its online offerings, HP has been the first among OEM equals in showcasing AMD-based client and server solutions. The HP ProLiant DL385, part of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based computing giant's line of AMD quad-core Opteron servers, recently earned top marks on the SPECweb2005 benchmark for x86 2p servers, highlighting significant strengths in Web-based transactions.

Next: Chipset choice for the channel

AMD Business Class also offers a variety of configurations for system builders, Speed said. Commercial-class processors available to AMD's channel include Phenom triple-cores and quad-cores, as well as Athlon single-cores and dual-cores, all signified by the "B" designation on their model numbers. These include the 2.3GHz Phenom X4 9600B (quad-core, 95W, 2MB of L2 cache, 2MB of L3 cache), the 2.3GHz Phenom X3 8600B (triple-core, 95W, 1.5MB of L2 cache, 2MB of L3 cache), and five Athlon devices ranging from the 2.7GHz, single-core Athlon 1640B (45W, 512K of L2 cache) up to the 2.8GHz, dual-core Athlon X2 5400B (65W, 1MB of L2 cache).

AMD commercial systems can be built on AMD's newly released 780V chipset with integrated graphics but system builders also have the option of selecting AMD Validated Solutions-tested boards that feature the Nvidia MCP78 chipset, Speed said. The 780V chipset, the commercial version of AMD's well-received 780G chipset, features DirectX 10 graphics, ATI PowerPlay technology for energy efficiency and ATI SurroundView support for up to four monitors.

System builders have the option of adding discrete ATI graphics to their AMD Business Class systems and the 780V chipset supports AMD's hybrid graphics technology as well, Speed said. Boards immediately available to the channel include two from Asus, the M3A78-CM DVI (AMD 780V chipset, ATI Radeon 3100) and the M3N78-CM DVI (Nvidia MCP78 chipset, Nforce 750a); two from MSI, the K9A2VM-FD (AMD 780V chipset, ATI Radeon 3100) and the K9N2GM-FD (Nvidia MCP78 chipset, Nforce 750a); and one from ECS, the A780VM-M2 (AMD 780V chipset, ATI Radeon 3100).

All five Hardcastle boards are TPM 1.2-capable and ROHS-compliant, with 4 DIMM slots, 6-channel audio and 1GB LAN capacity. Premier AMD partners in North America and Western Europe will be able to receive exchanged boards from AMD in advance and by the next business day after notification of an exchange request, Speed added.

AMD promises up to 24 months of stability and has a new three-year warranty for parts sold through select distributors or in systems available from select OEMs. The chip maker is also stressing the specific advantages of its new commercial platforms, such as readiness for Windows Vista migration, while offering its system builder channel a "full array of marketing art, materials and tools" for point-of-sale, print and Web, Speed said.

AMD also expects to develop more out-of-band system management capabilities on its commercial client systems in the coming year, Speed said. AMD is generally thought to have fallen behind Santa Clara, Calif.-based rival Intel on out-of-band system management, an increasingly important component of commercial systems and networking management, particularly for channel-based managed service providers.

Intel, with its proprietary vPro technology for system management and security, has built solid partnerships with MSP platform vendors like Level Platforms and N-able Technologies, as well as system, security and process management software vendors like LANDesk and networking infrastructure companies like Cisco. But rather than build proprietary technology of its own, AMD has focused its efforts on developing open standards for in-band and out-of-band manageability with the Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF) computing standards body.

AMD, in collaboration with the DMTF, software vendors like Microsoft and LANDesk, and communications hardware and firmware manufacturers like Broadcom, Marvell and Avocent, is working towards open standards for system and networking manageability, Speed said. Standards for Desktop and Mobile Architecture for System Hardware, or DASH, have been defined and DASH-standard silicon, firmware, and testing/development tools are slated for release this year, with limited deployment of management consoles expected in 2009 and mainstream deployment of standard features for PCs and consoles roadmapped for 2010.