Opteron is building momentum, but needs help

Four months after Advanced Micro Devices pledged to "transform enterprise computing" with its 64-bit Opteron processor, the chip...

Four months after Advanced Micro Devices pledged to "transform enterprise computing" with its 64-bit Opteron processor, the chip has landed in a number of supercomputer design wins, and won the backing of one of the world's largest server companies.

A number of hurdles, namely the mere presence of low-end server giant Intel, will keep Opteron on the fringes of the enterprise for the several months, analysts said.

AMD will also need to secure the support of another large systems supplier, and shore up its leaky bottom line, before the most significant launch in the company's history can be considered a success and AMD starts to win server processor market share.

Opteron bridges two computing worlds, allowing IT managers to run 32-bit applications and 64-bit applications on the same server. In creating the Opteron, AMD added 64-bit extensions to the 32-bit x86 architecture used in Xeon, Athlon MP, and desktop processors from both Intel and AMD.

The ability to manipulate large amounts of memory is why 64-bit chips are mostly used on large corporate databases or scientific computing applications. But most 64-bit systems are expensive, and many small to medium-sized companies might not be able to justify spending a lot of money on a 64-bit server to run only a few important applications while still needing to maintain an arsenal of 32-bit servers for the rest of their applications.

Opteron lets those users port only the applications that can immediately take advantage of 64-bit performance, while leaving their important 32-bit applications intact. If they choose to move their 32-bit applications to 64-bits later on, they do not have to buy a new server.

Computer Associates International is taking advantage of that feature by porting only the Ingres database of its Unicenter management software to the AMD64 instruction set, said Ben Williams, director of AMD's server and workstation business segments.

Some of Unicenter's management applications do not need 64-bit performance, and CA and its customers can reduce costs by porting only the applications that need the extra memory and performance, Williams said.

Intel uses a proprietary instruction set known as Epic (explicitly parallel instruction computing) in its 64-bit Itanium 2 that software engineers must learn to port their applications. The latest versions of Itanium 2 can run 32-bit applications at the equivalent performance of a 1.5GHz Xeon MP chip, but the exorbitant price of Itanium 2 servers dissuades IT managers from running anything on the chip but large databases or applications that must have 64-bit performance.

"You would never buy Itanium unless you had pretty much all your important code running at 64 bits. If you're using the 32-bit mode even 10% of the time, you're not working cost effectively," said Peter Glaskowsky, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report in San Jose, California.

Sixty-four bit chips from IBM and Sun Microsystems use the RISC (reduced instruction set computing) instruction set, which also requires a port from 32-bit x86 applications.

The scientific community has been the most enthusiastic backer of Opteron since it was released. Linux clusters are under construction for Los Alamos National Laboratory, Japan's National Institute for Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, and Sandia National Laboratories using Opteron processors. IBM's new dual-processor eServer 325, announced in August, will power the Japanese cluster.

"(High-performance computing) has been a great proving ground for Opteron. We had good momentum there with the Athlon MP, and the HPC space tends to be early adopters," Williams said.

Another HPC customer is the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, which recently purchased nine dual-processor Opteron servers to create a cluster for computational applications, said Eric Greenwade, a science fellow with the lab in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The lab had a great deal of experience with AMD's Athlon MP processors, and decided to purchase an Opteron system after running its code on Opteron servers via guest accounts, Greenwade said. It uses the servers from Appro International for 64-bit applications, and has been delighted with the floating-point performance of the Opteron 244 chips, he said.

Two factors are currently hindering the uptake of Opteron among corporate customers, said Kevin Krewell, senior editor of the Microprocessor Report.

First, Microsoft has yet to release the production version of Microsoft Windows Server 2003 for Opteron. A beta version is available and, although Microsoft said earlier this year that the production version would be out in the fourth quarter, it is unlikely to make its debut until early 2004, Krewell said.

When that version is released, then 64-bit Opteron applications will follow, Krewell said, adding that most users who are thinking about moving to Opteron servers are running Windows on Xeon servers, and will want the Microsoft operating system and application support before even considering a switch.

Linux users already have an option in SuSE Linux AG's Opteron version of its Linux operating system, and Red Hat is expected to have a version ready later this year, Krewell said.

In addition to operating systems and applications, many customers want the service and support that only a large server company can provide, Krewell said. IBM's eServer 325 was an important design win for AMD, but if the company really wants to challenge Intel in the market for server processors, it will need the support of either Hewlett-Packard, Sun, or Dell.

All of the major system vendors are at least examining Opteron, AMD's Williams said.

Although HP is the only major PC company to use AMD's Athlon XP processors in its products, it is highly unlikely that the company would adopt Opteron. HP played a large role in the design of Intel's Itanium 2 processor, and is migrating all of its Alpha and PA-RISC customers to the 64-bit Itanium 2 chip.

Sun and Dell remain intriguing possibilities, Krewell said. Sun uses Intel chips for its line of x86 blade servers, but competes directly against Intel's Itanium 2 in large servers, and might be inclined to give AMD its blade server business.

The real break in the dam could come from a Dell design win, Krewell said. Dell has remained coy about its plans for Opteron, refusing to either confirm or deny that it is considering Opteron for its servers. A Dell Opteron server would put AMD in an excellent position to compete against Intel.

Dell spokesman Bruce Anderson said his company's position is unchanged. "We're keeping our eye on the whole 64-bit market, which includes a variety of technologies. We're listening to what our customers are saying, but at this point, Intel is our key partner [for 64-bit computing]."

AMD's balance sheet remains its Achilles' heel. The company's long-term debt stands at $1.5bn according to its second-quarter results, and its cash position has dwindled from $1bn in the second quarter of 2002 to $739m this year's second quarter.

The company needs to make a significant marketing and advertising commitment to Opteron to convince IT managers the chip can hold its own against Xeon, and will have to consider reducing the price of the chip to secure additional design wins, Krewell said. Both of those options are harder to swallow when faced with a declining cash position.

Tom Krazit writes for IDG News Service

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