NetApp picks Opteron, boosts AMD’s bid

Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s brand new embedded Opteron program has a new customer — storage vendor Network Appliance Inc. NetApp has selected Opteron as the processor for an upcoming storage server, according to NetApp Chief Executive Officer Dan Warmenhoven.

NetApp currently uses chips from Intel Corp. for much of its product line, but the company has decided to go with AMD’s 64-bit processor for its next high-end machine because of technical reasons, Warmenhoven said during an interview. “We’ll use AMD for one box,” he said. “We need the 64-bit architecture and Intel couldn’t get there in time. But I see no reason to say that sets a precedent for what we do next.”

Warmenhoven did not provide any further details on the new server, but a company spokeswoman said that the company has no plans to ship Opteron-based servers during 2005.

Over the next two years, Network Appliance will be phasing in a new operating system for its storage servers called Data OnTap Next Generation. The software, which will use technology NetApp acquired in its 2003 purchase of Spinnaker Networks, will provide a common management interface for very large clusters of storage servers.

“Just like you can have a pool of Linux servers (in a cluster), we’re going to give you a pool of storage,” said Rod Matthews, senior director of strategy and development with Network Appliance.

Whatever the specifics of the forthcoming Opteron-based product, the design win will give a boost to AMD’s embedded Opteron program, which the company unveiled just three months ago. “I think it’s huge for AMD’s credibility,” said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight64 in Saratoga, California.

Unlike general-purpose systems, which can be configured for a wide variety of applications, embedded computers are designed to perform a limited number of predefined tasks.

While Intel’s chip designs have focused more on the midrange of the server market, AMD has come up with a processor that is particularly well-suited to products like storage servers, Brookwood said. “Storage applications require a combination of lots of memory, lots of memory bandwidth, and lots of I/O bandwidth,” he said. “You’re not doing tons of calculations in these storage systems, you’re just shuttling things around.”

The AMD chip’s integrated memory controller, which speeds up communication between the processor and memory, and HyperTransport interconnects, which is used for communication between non-memory system components, make the processor particularly appealing for devices that need to process large amounts of data, according to the company. Intel’s chips use a different design.

To date, AMD has announced only three embedded Opteron design wins. Sun Microsystems Inc. has said that it will build a blade server for the telecommunications market, and hardware makers Pinnacle Data Systems Inc. and WIN Enterprises Inc. are also on board.

NetApp is the first storage vendor to publicly commit to Opteron, but it apparently will not be the last.

AMD has now signed up more than 10 storage vendors, according to David Rich, director of 64-bit embedded markets at AMD. Rich declined to name any of these vendors, however, saying that it was too early in the product development cycle for most of them to go public with their intentions.

In addition to the telecom and storage space, embedded Opteron chips are also attracting some attention in the imaging market, Rich said. “In imaging you very often have large pieces of data,” he said. “You get into issues of moving the images around and working on them with multiple processors. Again, that’s where we have great advantages,” he said.

Opteron isn’t the only non-Intel chip that NetApp has used. The company once shipped servers based on the Alpha processor, and it uses chips from Broadcom Corp. for its low-end FAS200 series products, according to Warmenhoven.

NetApp’s CEO Warmenhoven stressed that the Opteron win did not represent a long-term switch for his company. He said that Intel, which is also a NetApp customer, is very much in the running for future designs. “While I don’t necessarily espouse reciprocity, they’re a big customer of mine: Tie goes to Intel.”

“If they get the processor ready, that ‘s what I”m going to use,” Warmenhoven said of Intel. “They missed a cycle in what I required. They spent so much time and energy on Itanium. Itanium wasn’t what I needed. I needed 64-bit Intel architecture. AMD had it.”

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