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Can anyone compete with Intel? AMD says, 'No!'

Dirty tricks scuppered Opteron's big day

Analysis AMD's antitrust lawsuit against Intel comes as no surprise. While the historical underpinnings for such a suit date back many, many years, the real meat of this controversy swirls around AMD's release of the Opteron processor two years ago.

AMD created a faster, cheaper, smarter and more efficient chip, while Intel insisted the market had no interest in such a 64-bit product, only to admit months later x86-64-bit chips were the future of the industry.

AMD secured the world's largest computer company - IBM - on its side, had interest from HP and Sun Microsystems and looked in great shape. It did everything the business world demands of the smaller player by taking more risks and moving more nimbly than its giant rival.

More often than not, you'd expect AMD's moment of brilliant execution to produce lavish rewards.

To this day, AMD's Opteron processor outperforms Intel's Xeon chip on so many benchmarks that few question Opteron's superiority. Intel is a full process generation behind AMD, putting just one core in its Xeon while AMD has two engines in Opteron. AMD's method of handling memory with integrated memory controllers for each chip is said to be years ahead of similar technology being developed by Intel to avoid bottlenecks caused by its dependence on a FSB (front side bus). But despite all this, AMD has failed to win one of the world's major server vendors - Dell - as a customer or to meet market share goals - 10 per cent - with Opteron.

Over the past two years, we've reported on a number of the rumors surrounding AMD's struggle to crack open more of the x86 server market. Many of these rumors were mentioned in AMD's lawsuit. (Here in PDF.)

In particular, numerous sources have stated that IBM halted development on Opteron-based servers at Intel's urging - either through verbal pressure or by coaxing IBM with co-marekting dollars. Sources have also said that Intel tried to apply similar tactics with HP. It is believed that Intel funds HP's anti-Sun effort known as the Eclipse program. Intel is also said to have given away free test servers to customers considering Opteron systems, hoping that the customers will find it more of a pain to leave the Xeon boxes once they've got an application up and running than to go to the better performing Opteron gear. As stated, however, such statements have never been substantiated.

AMD's lawsuit recounts even more damaging speculation with an incredible list of customers, including Dell, Sony, NEC, Hitachi, HP, Toshiba, Fujitsu, Gateway and Supermicro. One would expect that AMD has more definitive documentation to back up the allegations made in the lawsuit because the evidence presented - while convincing - smacks of the same hearsay encountered by reporters from time to time.

AMD will now embark on its discovery phase and has asked 40 companies to save their e-mail, documents and other correspondence. Intel, however, usually makes sure its executives and salesfolk don't put anything that could be construed as damaging down in writing. It's something Intel learned by watching Microsoft and during its first anti-trust battle with the US FTC (Federal Trade Commission), which produced a settlement forcing Intel to play nice.

A good example of such "see no evil" behavior dates back to blade server maker RLX's early days. The company hit the market with a Transmeta-based blade, and Intel reacted harshly. It dangled millions in front of RLX, according to a company executive present during these discussions, to develop an Intel processor-based blade as well. RLX refused for some time but eventually gave in based on Intel's verbal promise of plenty of cash. Once word of RLX's plan to produce the Intel system leaked out, Intel pulled back on its offer of money, leaving RLX hanging before product got to market. At that point, RLX - a strapped start-up - had to move forward with a two-chip product line - something not even wealthy Dell is willing to do today.

Did Intel care about potential RLX sales? Nope. It simply wanted to announce that RLX had given up on Transmeta, when in actuality it hadn't. The same thing happened later when Fujitsu announced a line of Itanium servers. Intel's marketing staff openly said this "signaled that Fujitsu was giving up on SPARC," but here we are years later and Fujitsu is moving ahead with Sun on the SPARC chip. The embrace of Itanic didn't really signal anything except years of slow server sales for Fujitsu.

Again, however, you have to ask whether or not this isn't just smart business on Intel's part. Wasn't it RLX's fault to believe Intel's verbal promises? Isn't Dell doing just fine by ignoring Opteron? If consumers are being punished so much why can't they buy significantly cheaper systems from Sun, which receives no Intel marketing money and has no Intel products? With IBM, HP, Sun and a host of third-parities selling Opteron and Athlon64 systems, isn't there plenty of market competition?

By its own admission, AMD is doing very well. Executives stated today, during a conference call, that AMD chose to file its lawsuit at this time because of the company's strong current financial position. It didn't look like a desperate underdog. In addition, Japanese antitrust regulators recent ruling that Intel violated competition laws has made AMD's case stronger.

AMD has a relatively short technology lead to work with, according to most accounts. By 2007, Intel should have a redesigned lineup of Xeon and Itanium processors packed full of cores and with much better memory systems and power management. One can only guess that AMD wants to exploit the time between now and then as much as possible.

It knows this lawsuit will drag on for years, but perhaps AMD sensed, the time was right to put more than benchmark performance pressure on Intel. Maybe AMD wanted Intel to be looking over its shoulder for the next two years, making sure salesmen aren't too aggressive and that vendors aren't receiving too many perks. Maybe AMD wanted Intel to be a tad distracted for its "save the company" run. That's about the only reason we can come up with for AMD to engage in such a difficult, lengthy and expensive process. ®

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