Review Index:

Final Thoughts on AMD's Core Technology Update Presentation

Subject: Processors
Manufacturer: AMD

Another Boring Presentation...?

In my old age I am turning into a bit of a skeptic.  It is hard to really blame a guy; we are surrounded by marketing and hype, both from inside companies and from their fans.  When I first started to listen in on AMD’s Core Innovation Update presentation, I was not expecting much.  I figured it would be a rehash of the past year, more talk about Mullins/Beema, and some nice words about some of the upcoming Kaveri mobile products.

I was wrong.

AMD decided to give us a pretty interesting look at what they are hoping to accomplish in the next three years.  It was not all that long ago that AMD was essentially considered road kill, and there was a lot of pessimism that Rory Read and Co. could turn AMD around.  Now after a couple solid years of growth, a laser-like focus on product development based on the IP strengths of the company, and a pretty significant cut of the workforce, we are seeing an AMD that is vastly different from the one that Dirk Meyers was in charge of (or Hector Ruiz for that matter).  Their view for the future takes a pretty significant turn from where AMD was even 8 years ago.  x86 certainly has a future for AMD, but the full-scale adoption of the ARM architecture looks to be what finally differentiates this company from Intel.

Look, I’m Amphibious!

AMD is not amphibious.  They are working on being ambidextrous.  Their goal is not only to develop and sell x86 based processors, but also be a prime moving force in the ARM market.  AMD has survived against a very large, well funded, and aggressive organization for the past 35 years.  They believe their experience here can help them break into, and thrive within, the ARM marketplace.  Their goals are not necessarily to be in every smartphone out there, but they are leveraging the ARM architecture to address high growth markets that have a lot of potential.

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There are really two dominant architectures in the world with ARM and x86.  They power the vast majority of computing devices around the world.  Sure, we still have some Power and MIPS implementations, but they are dwarfed by the combined presence of x86 and ARM in modern devices.  The flexibility of x86 allows it to scale from the extreme mobile up to the highest performing clusters.  ARM also has the ability to scale in performance from handhelds up to the server world, but so far their introduction into servers and HPC solutions has been minimal to non-existent.  This is an area that AMD hopes to change, but it will not happen overnight.  A lot of infrastructure is needed to get ARM into that particular area.  Ask Intel how long it took for x86 to gain a handhold in the lucrative server and workstation markets.

Click here to read the entire article on AMD's Core Technology Update!

AMD has laid out year by year how they will address this new “ambidextrous” mentality and product alignment.  One thing that stands above is really their “crown jewels” of IP; their x86 and graphics technologies.  Their graphics IP is truly second to none and far exceeds that of what their primary rival (Intel) offers.  It offers a source of differentiation for both x86 and ARM markets that their rivals so far have not been able to match.  On the x86 side Intel does not have the flexibility, driver support, or overall performance of the latest GCN architecture on the Kaveri APU.  On the ARM side there are several rivals with competitive IP (NVIDIA, Imagination Tech, ARM Mali), but none of these companies have working products that embrace a true heterogeneous architecture as AMD has already shown on the x86 side.  Note that ARM and Imagination Technologies are partners in the HSA Foundation, so they will be supporting that functionality in the future.  It just seems that AMD has a big head start so far on the field.



2014: The year AMD made contact with sustained profitability (or at least without significant losses).  This will be a building block year for the company as they continue to leverage their existing Kaveri APUs into mobile markets as well as continuing with desktops and low end servers.  Kaveri is their first true HSA enabled part that promises some significant compute performance with the right workloads and software support.

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Beema and Mullins are optimized versions of last year’s Kabini and Temash APUs.  These show a very significant improvement in power consumption and clockspeed, allowing these products to consume less power will still outperforming last year’s parts.  These will be important products for AMD’s tablet and ultra-portable ambitions.  It is not a great leap that AMD will also eventually implement these APUs into the AM1 platform as an upgrade to the current 25 watt Kabini products already there.  A 15 watt APU that can clock significantly higher is a big win for AMD in this rather small, but still emerging market.

The big news is the availability of Seattle samples.  Seattle is the codename for AMD’s first ARM based processor.  Note I did not say APU.  Seattle is aimed directly at the low power/blade server market.  It does not contain any graphics IP, but it is comprised of up to 8 ARM Cortex A57 cores running at upwards of 2 GHz.  This product will morph into the Opteron A1100.  It will also include features such as an integrated DDR-3 and 4 memory controller, 8 lanes PCI-E 3.0, 8 SATA 6G ports, and perhaps most interestingly two 10 GbE connections.  This product is only sampling, but will be available for purchase in late 2014 or early 2015.  This is one of the more aggressive ARM server based offerings to be put up by a manufacturer.

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Skybridge will allow either an ARM or x86 APU to be used on the same underlying hardware in 2015

There is only one thing missing from Seattle, and that is HSA.  AMD is not at the point where they can integrate GCN or HSA functionality into the ARM Cortex A57 architecture (which is the design licensed directly from ARM).  AMD showed off working silicon at their conference and it was able to do some fairly interesting workloads on the server side.  We do not know yet how this architecture will scale or how it will handle exceptionally heavy loads.  All we know is that it works and they are sampling it to partners.

Seattle is significant because it is the first non-x86 processor that AMD has offered in a long, long time.  They licensed Intel designs when Intel couldn’t provide enough to the market, then extended that license and created their own x86 designs (and bought companies like NextGen).  In the 80s and early 90s they produced their own RISC based designs that were contemporaneous with many SPARC based offerings.  AMD is initially licensing the Cortex A57 core from ARM with the Seattle products, though it will not have a lot of AMD DNA integrated into the core architecture.  The big moves here will be the memory controller and I/O options that AMD is designing into this product.

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May 14, 2014 | 11:26 PM - Posted by John Freiman (not verified)

Good article.

May 14, 2014 | 11:26 PM - Posted by John Freiman (not verified)

Good article.

May 15, 2014 | 03:39 AM - Posted by SirRoderick (not verified)

I do wonder where this leaves the high-end desktop market...a monopoly by Intel? They'd be the only company providing high performance CPU parts for workstations, gaming rigs and the like.

May 15, 2014 | 05:27 AM - Posted by dragosmp (not verified)

For workstations, aside from a few isolated cases in the low cost space, there has always been only Intel. I really hope they continue to improve IPC as my productivity rises linearly with the single-threaded speed of the CPU.

For gaming @1080p my Phenom II is still good, the rig is quite often GPU-limited with the 7950. Sure, an i7 4770 might be a bit faster, but we can argue that the speed of the CPU (or the single-threaded speed) is not critical and should become even less important unless we're talking about Atom/Kabini type of CPUs with the advent of Mantle / Dx12.

May 15, 2014 | 08:12 AM - Posted by John H (not verified)

Very good article Josh. And interesting on the shared socket - Intel never quite got there with Itanium and x86..

I'm curious - any hints on where the engineering resources are coming from for handling both cores? As recently as a year ago, it appeared AMD had two major engineering teams on CPUs: The small x86 cores and the big x86 cores..

This roadmap shows further development on their small cores, and does not directly talk about the big cores.. BUT rumor has it AMD is working on a next gen "bigger" x86 core for 2016, so curious if the ARM cores are intended to eventually replace their small cores, or does AMD end up with two smaller cores for the mid future (ARM and puma-derived x86)?

May 15, 2014 | 11:32 AM - Posted by Josh Walrath

Not sure how they have reallocated engineering teams, but I guess that they have primarily just cut down the amount of products they are pushing.  "Big Core" style processors like the AM3+ and Piledriver based Opterons are fading away and no new development is happening there.  So essentially we have the big APU, small APU, and ARM products for the next two years.  After that I wonder if the new x86 core will be able to fit all of those markets, leaving only that core and the new ARM units?  Sure does seem like AMD is doing a bunch of consolidation of their product stack.

May 15, 2014 | 08:28 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

With the Power8 ISA/IP up for ARM style licensing, Apple could very well replace those Xeon CPUs in its Mac Pros with a Power8 server CPUs, and Power8 is not the same as PowerPC. Power8, and an ARM style of economy of scale, and being produced by Samsung, AMD, and others who can now License Power8 ISA/designs from IBM, will have a Xeon beating CPU for workstations/Big Iron server farms, with the Power8's ability to outperform Xeon. AMD will be smart to get Power8 as an option, to go along with its own custom ARMv8 designs, and its new x86 microarchitecture, and with AMDs chip skills, those Power8 cores could be made HSA aware also with AMD graphics. I am sure Apple could fund a Power8 customization project and use AMD as a subcontractor for a custom Power8 SKU, with on module graphics DIEs and uber wide data paths/fabrics (Nvidia is working on something like this for IBM servers) to that graphics for Apple's Mac Pro line of workstations, others. AMD's low cost x86 server products will sale very well, with Power8 taking over the heavy hitting in the server rooms, and AMD's custom ARMv8 in there also handeling low power server workloads. AMD should become a CPU company, and not an just x86 ISA company, but a company with the right ISA for whatever job needs to be done. With all these CPUs ISAs/IP up for license the CPU customization business is going to bring in Billions, just look at AMD's custom console business and multiply that by a thousand or more.

May 15, 2014 | 11:39 AM - Posted by mAxius

Yet another very good article Josh. The future for amd looks very bright indeed if they can pull everything off. I can not wait to hear more about the x86 core that is coming.

May 15, 2014 | 06:54 PM - Posted by JohnGR

So, let's say that I am buying a future AM1 board. The 2016 model perhaps.
Am I going to have the choice between buying an APU with X86 cores to run my Windows OS or an APU with ARM cores to run my Android OS? I am talking about one motherboard and two different APU models that use the same socket and can be identified and used by that one board.

December 4, 2014 | 02:41 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Android OS on PC? Why, for what?

If you really need an ability to use Android OS on PC, its better to stick to some Android emulator (e.g. Bluestacks App Player) Android doesn't really allow to do a lot of "desktop-class" things like software programming and power computing, its simply not suited for PCs

May 16, 2014 | 09:58 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

The slide says that dense server, embedded, semi-custom, and ultra-low power client are targets for both x86 and ARM cores.

May 17, 2014 | 01:53 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

They have Mantle to make up for the somewhat lackluster performance of the FXs in terms of single threaded heavy games. FX can stood on its own against intel when it comes to non-gaming. So no, they're still fine on the desktop department.

May 30, 2014 | 01:41 AM - Posted by arief (not verified)

Those mantel on android would bring console like performance. This thing is too good to be true.

March 30, 2015 | 01:20 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

ARM != Android, you can run versions of the android OS on x86 procs, Windows RT can run on ARM processors, and pretty much any version of Linux will have an ARM variant. As others have mentioned loading up Android on a desktop PC would be terribly limiting, as would Windows RT, which is designed for tablets. Your best bet is to use one of the Linux variants. Standard windows software won't run on it even if you use Windows RT, although a good selection is probably available from the windows store built with Microsoft's cross platform API (.net).

Open source Linux software is all fair game, as you can compile it yourself to run on your ARM proc.

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