The quad-core battle rages on

With the release of its next-generation quad-core Opteron server processors, codenamed Barcelona, AMD is hoping to regain market share lost to Intel`s Xeon offerings.
1 November 2007

AMD`s new Barcelona server processor range sports some rather impressive features. The question on everyone`s lips, however, is whether or not the company will manage to close the performance gap, or will Intel continue to rule the roost?

It wasn`t long ago that we had a two-horse race in the processor market between AMD and Intel, both with compelling arguments for why you should choose their chips. At one point, AMD arguably held the lead. Sadly (for the market), the recent situation has been entirely different, with Intel streaking ahead with its Xeon and Intel Core 2 Duo chipsets, leaving AMD reeling. The latter quite simply has not been able to keep up with the speed and brute processing power on offer by Intel – until now. With the next generation of its Opteron processors, AMD claims to finally have something available that rivals Intel`s hold on the market.

Essentially, the new Opteron is a quad-core server chip designed to compete with Intel`s Xeon range. AMD claims that the new processor will offer “uncompromised design” and “unprecedented performance per Watt”.

On the power side, the quad-core processors are undoubtedly the most power-efficient server chips ever produced by AMD. This is largely thanks to the firm`s proprietary PowerNow and CoolCore technologies that allow the Barcelona chips to achieve greater performance with incrementally less power consumption. With ever-present concerns over total cost of ownership and a new focus being displayed in the market for environmental impact, these are important features for any new processor.

Going virtual

The new  Opteron is a quad-core server chip designed to compete with Intel's Xeon range. The new processor will offer uncompromised design and unprecedented performance per Watt. AMD
Another important trend in the market at the moment is towards the use of virtualisation; here, AMD has developed a processor technology called Direct Connect Architecture that enables support for a host of virtualisation platforms. The quad-core AMD Opteron processors potentially accelerate the performance of virtualised applications and cut down on the time it takes to switch between virtual machines.

The maximum memory bandwidth available in the Opteron range is 21.2 gigabits per second, with a maximum I/O bandwidth of 16. Level 1 cache size for the Barcelona is 64KB per core, both for data and instructions, with level 2 cache at 512KB and two megabytes of shared level 3 cache. When compared to the Intel Xeon 5300 series of server processors, the new Opteron matches up favourably, trumping the Xeon in some respects.

Intel, however, unveiled the roadmap for Xeon at its recent Intel Developer Forum (IDF) conference. This revealed three new Penryn-based Xeon models on the way sporting 1600 MHz front-side bus speeds. Penryn is Intel`s next-generation processor. With these chips set for release soon, Intel may already have an answer to AMD`s Barcelona.

Nonetheless, AMD has an impressive range of benchmark statistics available on its website, proving that the new Opteron range has what it takes to keep up with – or even overtake – Intel`s performance in current offerings.

In virtualisation benchmarks, for example, AMD has shown that the new chips deliver a 224 percent performance increase over its dual-core predecessors. One would have assumed that with twice the cores there would be twice the performance, but AMD has gone all out to add new chip features that it claims enable the new quad-core chips to stand up more convincingly to Intel`s offerings than the previous dual-core rivals did.

Better than before

In database serving benchmarks, the Barcelona delivers a 161 percent increase over its dual-core relatives when serving IBM DB2. Memory handling in the quad-core Opteron range is 50 percent better than the dual-core variety, thanks to AMD`s memory optimiser technology that has been designed for the increased demands of quad-core computing.

Another interesting piece of technology included with the Barcelona is Independent Dynamic Core Technology, which allows quad-core AMD Opteron processor frequencies to be varied per core to reduce power consumed by lower utilised cores.

The quad-core Opteron also has improved instruction-set support, whereas the Intel Xeon 5300 series covers less – that is, of course, until the next generation Intel processors arrive.

Of most interest will be Intel`s Xeon 7300 series ‘Tigerton` processor, which should be out by the time you read this, offering twice the performance and three times the power per Watt offered by its dual-core 7100 series predecessor; it will undoubtedly tank the quad-core Opteron in benchmarks.

With AMD lagging somewhat in bringing a quad-core processor to market, Intel has had some lead-time to establish its quad-core Xeon range. The lead may not be out of reach for AMD, but it does have some catching up to do in terms of reaffirming its position as a serious competitor in the market. On the desktop front, it seems that AMD is still occupying the back seat, but with the new quad-core Opteron looking good for now, perhaps the server market will tell a different story.