Saturday, July 16, 2005

The Rise of AMD

Everyone is in such a twitter these days over AMD's antitrust lawsuit against Intel that you have to read carefully to find news items that illustrate AMD's superior processor technology over rival Intel's. I've read at least four so far; two have to do with dual-core benchmarks, one has to do with power consumption, and one has to do with AMD's last quarter sales performance.

AMD's sales grew nearly 90% in the second quarter. The sales increase was driven primarily by processors, primarily Opteron server chips. According to the Inquirer the Athlon 64 "desktop CPU market doesn't seem to be a very happy place to be." Regardless of the Inquirer author's opinion, what it shows is that a lot of folks outside of the main Intel-dominated market recognize the quality of the AMD processors (HP and Sun come to mind) and that AMD is happily selling every single one they can make (and at very high markup if you check the sites).

There is an article on Tom's Hardware titled "The AMD and Intel Energy Crisis". There aren't that many benchmarks, but what there are show a basic truth that is summed up in the article:
From a performance per Watt point of view, Pentium-based computers perform far worse under a heavy load due to the higher clock speed level. A maximum of 166 W under 3DMark 05 (Athlon 64 4000+ with nForce4 Ultra) is much more acceptable than 255 W (Pentium 4 660 with 925XE).
There are two dual-core benchmarks that show AMD soundly beating Intel. The one from PCWorld is titled "Dual-Core Duel: AMD Beats Intel" while the second is from GamePC and is titled "Dual Core Done Right : AMD's Athlon64 X2 Processors". The PCWorld article was rather short; it was barely two pages long, with just one benchmark. The second test was much longer and detailed, and it had some interesting comments to make. This one echoes sentiments from the Tom's Hardware article:
Intel's first dual-core processors have been nightmares in terms of power consumption and cooling, leading to some of the highest wattage consumption numbers and thermals ever seen from a "single" processor. Thankfully, AMD's Athlon64 X2 series does not have these similar problems, as we've found in testing, the X2 consumes about as much power and creates as much heat as their previous generation single core chips...

Athlon64 X2 processors are fantastic in terms of power consumption, as two 90nm cores will consume less power compared to a single 130nm-based Athlon64 processor, while at the same time giving nearly double the raw processing power, which is very impressive. At full load, our Athlon64 X2 4800+ system with a GeForce 6800 Ultra system only is utilizing around 200W of power, 100W less compared to Intel's dual core offerings, and even quite a bit less compared to Intel's single core Prescott processors.

Not only does this mean Athlon64 X2 systems should run fairly cool (and quiet!), it also makes the Athlon64 X2 all that more attractive for power sensitive computing environments, such as home theater PC's and low-cost rackmount / tower servers.
What I found amazing is the amount of power both chips consume under full load with the GamePC tests. The Athlon 64X2 4800+ consumed 201 watts while the Intel Pentium D 840 consumed 297 watts. Add in one of the killer video cards like the nVidia 6800 or 7800 cards and some big hard drives, and it's no wonder system power supplies now provide over 500 watts (1/2 kilowatt) for Intel rigs.

Three of the four articles underline a continuing trend at Intel: failure to technically execute. Intel has had a number of embarrassing technical faux paus since the start of the 21st century, beginning with the Itanium (aka Itanic) lackluster acceptance, its poor 90 nm process (leading to very high power consumption problems in late-model Pentium 4 cores), the realization that the Pentium M is superior to the Pentium 4, being forced by AMD to implement (the AMD64) 64-bit extensions, and being forced by AMD to market dual-core processors that are clearly inferior to the ones from AMD.

Intel illustrates clearly what you get when you let marketers instead of engineers lead a company. Microsoft went to the dark side early on. They used shrewd marketing to gain market monopoly, and they've used that same skill every since. Intel went over during the late 90's when they wanted a piece of the dot-bomb server market dominated by Sun at the time. HP went along because they didn't have the funds for another PA-RISC design cycle, so they hitched their wagon with Intel to the EPIC-based Itanium, Intel's marketing weapon of choice at the time. Intel saw the mountains of money being made by Sun during the dot-bomb madness and they wanted that. Then the dot-bomb imploded, the Itanium was late and never quite lived up to its advanced billing, and the rest, as they say, became history.

So now we have a situation in which the largest processor maker, Intel, is selling inferior processor technology purely on marketing and market dominance alone, while the underdog, AMD, is fighting to sell a clearly superior processor, and has been for the past two years, barely making inroads with Intel-dominated customers. In the ideal world you win customers and markets with proven engineering superiority, but in the real world AMD struggles to gain market share. Given Intel's ruthless and brutal reputation, is it any wonder that AMD finally decided to sue Intel?

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