Dual-core chip set to ship

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. on Thursday was set to introduce the fist six models of its Opteron microprocessor to feature two processing engines, or cores, on a single chip. As previously reported by IDG News Service, the announcement is scheduled to occur at a press event to be held in New York the day before Opteron’s second anniversary.

The Sunnyvale, California, chipmaker’s first dual-core Opterons will be targeted at servers with four processors and will begin shipping over the next few weeks in Hewlett-Packard Co.’s ProLiant BL45p and DL585 systems and Sun Microsystems Inc.’s Sun Fire V40z servers. The new Opteron processors that will power these systems will be the 1.8GHz Model 865, the 2GHz Model 870 and the Model 875, which will have a clock speed of 2.2GHz.

Although the performance of dual-core systems is expected to be significantly greater than that of comparable single-core boxes, dual-core Opterons will have lower clock speeds than single-core chips. AMD’s fastest single-core processor, Model 852, runs at 2.6GHz. If AMD had wanted to run its dual-core processors at a similar clock speed, the chips would have required much more power, analysts said.

Instead, the dual-core chips will draw a maximum of 95 watts, the same amount of power used by single-core Opteron processors, said Ben Williams, vice president of AMD’s server and workstation business.

In fact, the dual-core Opterons are designed to be completely compatible with components designed for single-core processors, meaning that system vendors will be able to begin selling dual-core systems with a minimum of hassle, Williams said.

The new 800 series processors will be available in volume as of Thursday, and AMD plans to begin shipping three dual-core 200 series processors late next month. These chips, which are designed for 2-way servers, will be followed later this year by 100 series processors as well as a number of low-power dual-core Opterons designed for the high-density server and embedded markets, Williams said.

A dual-core processor for desktop users, called the Athlon 64 X2, will be launched in June, AMD said. It will ship in four models and will have clock speeds between 2.2GHz and 2.4GHz, the company said.

AMD and Intel Corp. have run a tight race to beat each other to market with their dual-core chips. Earlier this week PC vendors Dell Inc. and Alienware Corp. began shipping systems with Intel’s first dual-core processor, the 3.2GHz Pentium Extreme Edition 840.

The marketing blitz behind dual-core has turned out to be one of the more interesting aspects of this technology, said Kevin Krewell, editor-in-chief of Microprocessor Report, in San Jose, California. “They both launched their chips in the same week, which is pretty amusing,” he said. “They’re fighting tooth and nail.”

“The reality is neither AMD nor Intel are first to the party,” Krewell said. “In fact, they are late to the party for dual-core processors.”‘ IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. have been shipping dual-core servers since the advent of their Power4 and UltraSparc IV chips, and many other vendors, including Azul Systems Inc., which this week unveiled systems based on a 24-core processor, have mastered the move to multi-core designs, he said.

Also of interest has been the question of what to charge for dual-core products. Many software vendors typically charge for their code on a per-processor basis, but there has thus far been no industry consensus on whether a dual-core system should be licensed as one processor or two. Dual-core systems typically have better performance than single-core machines, but they do not match the level one would typically get using two single-core chips.

Although AMD has strongly encouraged software vendors to set pricing based on the number of processors, not cores, it too has had to confront this question in deciding what to charge for the new dual-core chips. The most expensive single-core Opteron product, the Model 852, is currently priced at US$1,514 per processor when purchased in quantities of 1,000 or more, AMD said. With dual-core processors, which are the same size as their single-core counterparts, that top-of-the-line pricing jumps to $2,649 per chip.

Like the software vendors, AMD has needed to make some pricing adjustments in order to sell dual-core parts, said Margaret Lewis, a senior software strategist at AMD. In the case of the new Opterons, their performance boost justifies the cost increase, she said. “I would love to live in a world where we didn’t charge any extra at all for dual-core,” she said. “But if you look at some of the benchmarks, you’ll see the utility that we’re delivering with the processor. What we’re trying to do is price for the utility that we deliver.”

While AMD has told vendors to avoid pricing by processor core, “we have not said anything about them increasing the price of their software per processor,” she said.

The price increase will not be as steep with AMD’s 200 series, which will start at $851 per processor for the 1.8GHz dual-core Model 265. This is the same price as the current top-of-the-line Opteron Model 252. Two other processors, the 2GHz Model 270 and the 2.2GHz Model 275, will be priced at $1,051 and $1,299, respectively.

The three upcoming dual-core 100 series processors — Models 164, 170, and 175 — will be priced at $637, $799, and $999.

The one major Opteron vendor not shipping 800 series systems, IBM, said it plans to ship the 200 series Opteron processor in its IntelliStation A Pro 6217 workstation, which will begin shipping in June. It will also support dual-core Opterons in the IBM eServer 326 server. Pricing for the dual-core 6217 will start at $3,259, IBM said. It declined to say what the cost of the eServer 326 would be.

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