War for Visual Computing: Why AMD Could Have the Best Chance
AMD's Current Status
Timeline of Relevant Information in this Debate
July 2006 - AMD buys ATI
While at Computex in Taiwan in June of 2006, the rumors of the
AMD/ATI merger were rampant though I thought most of it was simply
overzealous news gathering. However, once Intel started to discuss the
possibility of a combined AMD/ATI entity, we took note and sure enough
the deal went through. What at first seemed to be a merging of two
poorly performing companies struggling for a way to survive the move
has quickly become one of the most important relationships in the
future of computing.
Sept 2006 - Intel shows off Terascale for the first time
While the idea of graphics working on Intel's Terascale project
wasn't a focus at the time, Intel's first demonstration of an 80-core
processor was the first step in their public demonstrations
of highly parallel computing.
Nov 2006 - AMD discusses Fusion plans
Not long after the merger of AMD and ATI was finalized, the new
company began to tout its plans for the future of computing revolving
around an idea called "Fusion". What essentially boiled down to
combining a high-end processor with an integrated graphics core is a
progression in the move to a single, monolithic chip with similar
benefits to adding the PC's memory controller to the processor.
April 2007 - Intel Larrabee hinted at GPU
Intel first started discussing the Larrabee architecture as a
graphical computing product early in 2007 though analysts and editors
such as ourselves were obviously thinking this route to begin with.
Not just focusing on gaming, however, is one of Intel's keys to seeing
early success with the product.
Sept 2007 - Intel buys Havok
The first sign that Intel is serious about the future of gaming on
its hardware was this purchase of the dominate physics API for both PC
and console games.
Jan 2008 - AMD backs up on Fusion plans slightly
AMD's plans for Fusion were pushed back a bit for reasons that the
company has never really clarified. My speculation is that both
process technology hiccups and improved performance in IGP-based
chipsets were a factor.
AMD's Current Market Status
We would be remiss if the first thing we mentioned about AMD's
current status in the market was a very poor financial outlook. The
company has been bleeding money for a couple of years now and though
Hector Ruiz, current CEO, has promised investors that the company would
be profitable by Q3 of 2008 I wouldn't bet my mortgage on it quite
yet. AMD has talked about going "fab light" in a way that would help
alleviate some of the costs of chip production and some rumors are even
circulating that AMD would consider splitting the chip design and chip
product facilities completely. In early April the company announced
that it was going to be cutting 10% of its workforce in order to help
meet financial goals. Phil Hester and Bob Brewer, former AMD CTO and
VP of Strategic Marketing respectively, have stepped down in the last
week as well putting another negative spin on the company's future.
Obviously this is a company with quite a bit of internal turmoil and a
significant lack of investor trust.
Former AMD CTO Phil Hester, one casualty of the war
If we step away from personnel and finances and just look at
products, AMD isn't doing that bad. From a graphics perspective AMD
currently has its best lineup of products in 24 months or more with the
RV670-based designs of the Radeon HD 3000-series GPUs remaining
competitive with solutions from NVIDIA. The HD Radeon 2000-series of
cards was a big letdown for AMD both in terms of technology and sales
since gamers and system builders were hesitant to include such a power
hungry solution in their computers that didn't even best NVIDIA's much
older G80 architecture. The Radeon HD 3000-series parts are very
similar to those 2000-series parts but a move to a smaller 55nm process
technology and some tweaks in the design allowed AMD to move into a
much better power/performance envelope. AMD still can't claim the
performance lead over NVIDIA, but the current line of GPUs is strong.
The Radeon HD 3870 X2 - Part of AMD's current GPU lineup
While the world of AMD GPUs has been on the upswing over the last
two years, the same cannot be said of AMD's CPU division. While the
success of the original Athlon, Athlon X2 and Opteron processors were
stunning, which allowing AMD to increase market share across the board in
desktop and server environments, the reception to the Barcelona core
processors has been mediocre at best. AMD is currently unable to get
clock rates on the K10 design high enough to compete with top Intel
processors and the initial launch of the Phenom and Opteron (Barcelona
core) processors was muted by an overly publicized TLB erratum. While
the bug was definitely an issue for enterprise customers it was never
shown to be a problem with consumer level products in the wild, but
Phenom suffered for it anyway. Thankfully the revised B3 stepping of
both Phenom and Opteron processors are shipping giving AMD a "fixed"
CPU for the first time since K10's release. In both desktop and server
environments the parts are priced competitively to compete with Intel's
CPUs and while they can't claim to have the performance lead, just as
with their current GPUs, Phenom and Opteron are worthy rivals to Xeon
and Core 2.
AMD has fixed their TLB with this B3 stepping of the Phenom processor