principal analyst, Insight 64

Intel Corp.’s top server executive acknowledged the disparity between the server processor road maps of his company and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) Thursday, but said Intel should weather the storm based on its revitalized product line and a renewed focus on end users.

AMD released its first dual-core server processors last week, but Intel is not expected to follow suit until the first quarter of 2006 with its Dempsey processor. Intel’s single-core Xeon chips will be well behind the performance of AMD’s dual-core Opteron processors, but server customers weigh many factors when making a purchase decision, said Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s Digital Enterprise Group.

Users will find dual-core Opteron servers intriguing when compared to single-core Xeon servers, Gelsinger said. “There will clearly be some tire-kickers, and maybe some losses,” he said, referring to Intel customers who might switch to servers based on AMD’s chips. A customer who is happy with Intel, and has been successful with Intel, could easily convince themselves that as long as Intel will have a competitive solution, it’s not worth changing horses.Nathan Brookwood>TextHowever, enterprise customers are generally conservative when it comes to technology changes, Gelsinger said. Users interested in servers with four or more processors currently have the option of Intel’s new Truland platform, which will protect any current investments by allowing customers to plug dual-core Xeon chips into their existing Truland servers when these chips become available next year, he said.

Things are not so rosy on the two-way server front. Intel does not currently offer a chipset for two-processor servers that will support dual-core chips and prevent customers from having to buy another server in 2006 to take advantage of dual-core performance.

The six months or so in between Opteron’s dual-core debut and Intel’s Dempsey are probably short enough for Intel to dissuade customers from abandoning ship, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, California. With the disclosure of several new dual-core projects at March’s Spring Intel Developer Forum, the company reassured customers wary about its future road map, he said.

However, Intel will still have a difficult time competing against Opteron because of the Xeon product’s reliance on a front-side bus to coordinate the exchange of information between cores in dual-core processors, Brookwood said.

Intel’s chips use a pathway known as a front-side bus to connect the CPU (central processing unit) with a system’s chipset, where it can access data stored in memory chips, I/O ports, or another processor core. Opteron’s designers, on the other hand, connected the CPU directly to the memory chips, I/O, and a second processor core with the Hypertransport interconnect technology. This design improves performance because data can travel directly from the CPU to memory or another CPU without having to pass through the chipset, Brookwood said.

AMD’s dual-core Opterons will have a demonstrable performance advantage over single-core Xeons, simply because two processing engines can accomplish more than one. But the dual-core Xeon will still be at a disadvantage to a dual-core Opteron on certain applications because of Intel’s bus design, Brookwood said. Intel’s Truland platform uses an improved bus design, which will help close the gap for servers with four processors or more, but even Truland will fall a little short of the levels achieved by the dual-core Opteron in similar servers, he said.

Once Dempsey is released next year, application benchmarks will deliver the final verdict for customers who are looking for the highest levels of performance, Brookwood said. But other customers who have been purchasing Intel-based servers for years will probably be hesitant to switch, he said.

“A customer who is happy with Intel, and has been successful with Intel, could easily convince themselves that as long as Intel will have a competitive solution, it’s not worth changing horses,” Brookwood said. “Should there be a problem with Intel, or the road map gets visibly out of sync, then people might get nervous. If they execute well, they’ll hang on to customers.”

Last year was not Intel’s best in terms of executing its product strategies. The company was plagued with project delays and cancellations as well as manufacturing problems. Gelsigner, who shares responsibility with Abhi Talwalkar for the Digital Enterprise Group, has been tasked with making sure those execution problems do not happen again, he said.

Intel also plans to be more involved with end-users in upcoming months, Gelsinger said.

“We’ve gotten far too focused on the OEM [original equipment manufacturer] relationships. We need to focus more on the ecosystem and the end-users themselves,” Gelsinger said.

Related links:

Dual-core chip set to ship

Intel’s first dual-core chip shipping now

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