AMD Unveils Opteron 6300 Chips and ARM Server Processor Plans
AMD on Monday unveiled its newest Opteron 6300 Series processors, on top of its plans to adopt the ARM platform for servers.
Opteron 6300 Series processors are designed for applications such as cloud computing, high-performance computing and "big data" processing. Vendors currently selling equipment with the new chip include AMAX, Appro, Asus, Cray, Colfax, Megware Computer, Microway, Penguin Computing, SGI, Silicon Mechanics, Supermicro and ZT Systems.
Dell and HP are expected to produce servers using the new Opteron 6300 processors before year's end.
AMD plans to integrate the new Opteron 6300 processors on its Roadrunner motherboards, which are based on Facebook's Open Compute Project specifications for achieving energy efficiency in datacenters. Those Roadrunner products are planned for availability sometime in the first quarter of 2013.
Opteron 6300 Series chips support up to 16 cores and tap AMD's second-generation "Piledriver" architecture, promising higher performance per watt than AMD's previous-generation chips. Other power-saving claims made by AMD, according to its features list, include cache improvements for multithreaded processes, the ability to set thermal design power settings to boost server density, a C6 power state capability to reduce power consumption during times of low server use and DDR3 dynamic random access memory support at 1.25 volts, among others.
AMD's New Server ARM Plans
The new Opteron chips are x86-based at this point. However, AMD plans to produce its first 64-bit Opteron processors based on ARM designs for servers sometime in 2014. AMD's announcement, made late last month, notably sets the company on a new course alongside its traditional x86 server route. However, the new 64-bit ARM server products are a year and more away from being available, and it's expected that x86 silicon is likely to predominate in the near term. Still, the addition of ARM for server processors represents a big shift for AMD.
"By announcing our intent to build 64-bit ARM technology-based server CPUs, AMD has embarked on a path that will effectively end the one size fits all compute era that has dominated the data center for the past two decades," explained Lisa Su, senior vice president and general manager at AMD's Global Business Units, in a blog post.
AMD's 64-bit ARM chips will include the SeaMicro Freedom fabric technology, which allows processor clusters to be linked together to optimize energy efficiency. AMD announced plans to acquire SeaMicro in February for $334 million. The SeaMicro technology helps boost CPU efficiencies in datacenters, according to Su.
"By using Freedom fabric to link ARM-based CPUs into a cluster, and then linking the clusters to the network, AMD can effectively solve the bottleneck of leveraging small, efficient CPUs in the mega data centers of tomorrow," Su explained in the blog.
Hedging Bets with ARM
Datacenters are popping up across the country as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others expand their cloud infrastructures to support the traffic associated with Internet-connected mobile devices and social networking growth. The limiting factor for this cloud-computing growth scenario is energy availability and associated costs. Possibly, ARM processors could help in that respect, although Intel and AMD also are working on low-power-consumption x86 designs for servers in a competitive market.
ARM designs are better known for their widespread use in cell phones and mobile devices. However, ARM announced late last month that it will roll out a new 64-bit Cortex-A50 series of processor designs that will support "high-performance servers" as well as mobile smartphones. Cortex-A50 licensees currently include "AMD, Broadcom, Calxeda, HiSilicon, Samsung and STMicroelectronics," according to ARM's announcement. Those partners are expected to start delivering new system-on-chips incorporating Cortex-A50 sometime in 2014.
Red Hat is also throwing its hat into the low-power server arena. The Linux-based enterprise server OS company plans to add support in its open source Fedora operating system for the architecture behind the Cortex-A50 series, known as "64-bit ARMv8." In addition to working with AMD, Red Hat is collaborating with AppliedMicro on forthcoming "X-Gene Server-on-Chip designs," according to a second ARM announcement. X-Gene will be used for front-end Web servers, grid computing and big data deployments.
AMD's adoption of the ARM platform for the server side could eat into the company's x86 profits. Richard Fichera, an analyst at Forrester Research who has been tracking the low-power server market, described AMD's move into ARM-based server chips market as more of a niche market expansion that could displace pioneering companies such as Calxeda. At best, Fichera said in a blog post, AMD could gain "an opportunity to be an early mover in rapidly growing hyper-dense and energy-efficient server segments." At this point, Organizations will have to wait until sometime next year to see what AMD can create in the 64-bit ARM server space, he advised.
Intel Sticking with x86?
Fichera suggested that Intel likely would continue to build x86 chips for servers and not veer into ARM territory. A PCWorld story by James Niccolai cited Intel as indicating that it would not make ARM-based server processors to avoid paying royalties.
Intel plans to release a low-power server processor based on its Atom design with the code name "Centerton" by year's end. In 2013, Intel will be working on a second low-power processor for servers that's code-named "Avoton." That information comes from Intel's announcements, but only Avoton is listed in Intel's roadmap for density-optimized microservers aimed at the datacenter market.
Intel's Centerton chip is expected to begin shipping to chipmakers for early production efforts by the end of this year. HP is already using Centerton in its "Project Moonshot" effort to develop a low-power server solution for Web and cloud applications. HP's codenamed "Gemini" server system using the Centerton chips is expected to be available for shipping to customers by year's end, according to a June HP announcement.
AMD may seem to have an edge in the low-power microserver processor market competition with its SeaMicro fabric acquisition. However, Intel has been no slouch in recognizing the fabric's role, having acquired "high performance fabric assets from Qlogic and Cray this year," according to Charles King, president and principal analyst at Pund-IT Inc., in his October "Weekly Review" publication. King also noted that Intel is working on optimizing energy performance in its Xeon x86 processors, in addition to Atom.
Kurt Mackie is online news editor for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.