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The dual-core x86 server era begins thanks to AMD

Intel left with not so magical Unicore

Two years ago, AMD had everything to prove. It had a brand new server chip prepared for a market smothered by its main rival. It had IBM on its side with one Opteron-based server, but that was its only big server partner. It had a funky new 64-bit design that Intel deemed silly and before its time. The only thing AMD had a lot of were doubts.

Today, however, AMD looks pretty damn smart and certain. It has bested the world's largest, strongest chip company.

AMD has started selling a dual-core version of Opteron ahead of its original schedule. HP, Sun Microsystems and IBM have all greeted this release with new systems based on the processor. The only major server vendor not in the AMD camp - Dell - looks like a technology laggard. It and any other Intel-only vendors out there won't have a dual-core x86 server processor until next year.

"We've seen our competition basically fumble, and they are trying to pick up the ball," Ben Williams, a vice president at AMD, told The Register.

And true enough Intel has fumbled in every category except the one that counts most - sales. Intel has recently matched AMD with x86-64-bit chips across its server line and enjoys far more server processor sales than its smaller rival. Intel has every key x86 server maker on its side, while AMD is still fighting to win over Dell.

AMD hopes the new dual-core chip will push it toward much higher sales and true competition with Intel. To help nudge things along, AMD will sell the slowest models of the dual-core chips at the same price as the fastest models of its single core chips. This means customers get anywhere between 20 per cent to 30 per cent better performance for the same price.

The metal

AMD will start selling its 800 Series of dual-core Opterons aimed at servers with four to eight processors first. The speedy 2.2GHz 875 sits at the top of the line and is followed by the 2.0GHz 870 and 1.8GHz 865. The chips are priced at $2,649, $2,149 and $1,514 (for 1,000 chip quantities), respectively.

HP will quickly begin selling its four-way ProLiant DL585 server with the new dual-core chips, as will Sun Microsystems with its four-way V40z. Sun also reaffirmed its intentions to start shipping an eight-way (16 core) Opteron server later this year. That box will be part of a revamped Opteron line.

Both HP and Sun are picking up on AMD's aggressive pricing with the dual-core chip and offering their upgraded servers at close to the same price as their original four-way boxes.

In one month, AMD will ship the 200 Series dual-core chips for two-way servers. Customers will see the same range of speeds as with the 800 Series chips and prices will range from $1,299 down to $1,051 and $851.

Again, HP will outfit its two-way DL385 and DL145 servers with the dual-core chips, and Sun will take the same action with its V20z. IBM will also upgrade its 326 two-way Opteron server with the new chips.

Perhaps more interestingly, HP will use the 200 Series chip in a new blade system - the BL45p, which was first revealed by The Register way back in October. Customers can pack twice as many of the BL45p's in a rack as they can Xeon-based BL40p.

AMD thinks the dual-core chips could be a, er, hot commodity in the blade market since they require the same amount of power as the single core chips. Again, it's a two for one type of deal. AMD has pegged the dual-core chip, including the memory controller, at 95 watts and says comparable single-core Xeons come in at around 130 watts.

"Now, you can have the same performance level with less systems or increase performance substantially with the same number of systems in a rack," Williams said.

IBM is said to be tempting customers with an Opteron blade of its own but hasn't yet made the server public. Big Blue did however announce a new IntelliStation workstation that will run on the new 200 Series chip. The A Pro 6217 will be available in June at a starting price of $3,259.

The code

The software story around Opteron will be closely watched over the next 8 months, as AMD backers look to exploit gains against Intel-only vendors.

Sun, for example, will be touting Solaris x86 as the best OS option in the x86 world for four-way and larger servers. Solaris has long been tuned to run on SMPs and has a large stable of threaded software available for it, which can make the most of the dual-core design. Red Hat and Novell have 64-bit Linux OSes tuned for Opteron as well.

Microsoft next week will finally announce its 64-bit Windows OSes for workstations and servers too. Redmond has vowed to count dual-core chips as a single processor in per processor licensing models. This could prove to be a nice cost saving for small to medium-sized businesses. Dell customers will not be able to take advantage of this pricing until Intel rolls out its dual-core chip.

AMD has rightly argued that the server world is far more prepared than the PC universe to get performance boosts out of dual-core chips. Software is the main reason for that edge.

We'll have more coverage rolling in today from AMD's New York launch event for the dual-core Opteron. ®

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