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AMD plans 16-core server chip — but not until 2011

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. said today that it's designing a server processor with up to 16 cores, which would quadruple the count in the company's existing quad-core Opteron chips.

But the new chip, which is code-named Interlagos and slated to support between 12 and 16 processor cores, will be a long time coming. The processor won't be released until 2011, AMD officials said during a webcast press conference. They added that Interlagos will be a follow-up to a 12-core processor code-named Magny-Cours that AMD plans to release in next year's first quarter.

According to AMD, the future 16-core chips will be able to go into servers with two to four processor sockets, resulting in a maximum of 64 cores per system. The chip will be part of the vendor's Opteron 6000 series, which AMD officials said will be used primarily in data center servers.

Increasing the core counts in chips is a way for AMD and microprocessor market leader Intel Corp. to improve performance while trying to reduce power consumption. It also can lower the number of servers needed in data centers, which should help cut hardware acquisition and energy costs for customers, said Pat Patla, vice president of AMD's server platform unit.

AMD will take an initial step beyond its current four-core limit next month. During a conference call yesterday on its first-quarter financial results, which included a $416 million net loss, the company said it will ship a six-core Opteron code-named Istanbul in May, one month earlier than expected.

When the Interlagos chips are ready for release, they likely will be targeted at servers that handle workloads requiring plenty of processing power, such as hosting databases and running simulations, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research in Cave Creek, Ariz. “It will be a while before 16 cores is mainstream,” he said.

The Opteron line competes with Intel's Xeon server chip family. Intel released the six-core Xeon 7400 series last September. But thus far, the largest Xeon it has discussed publicly is an eight-core chip code-named Nehalem EX, due for release next year.

Intel also has announced plans for a “many-core” chip called Larrabee that is scheduled to ship in early 2010, but that is a graphics processor targeted at AMD's ATI product line and devices from Nvidia Corp.

Despite the push to increase the number of cores in processors, there's more to boosting performance than just doing that, Patla noted. He said AMD's future chips also will include advanced power management features that will enable users to manually cap the amount of energy that cores can consume and shut off idle ones.

In addition, AMD plans to double the number of virtual machines that can be supported by the Opteron chips and add new instruction sets to improve the ability of the processors to execute tasks in virtualized environments, according to Patla.

In the processors due for release next year and in 2011, AMD also plans to add support for more memory and cache. But there are some obvious features missing, such as multithreading, which Intel has already introduced in its chips.

“We're not ducking performance,” Patla said, adding that the planned chip improvements are balanced and that AMD wants to deliver value without going overboard on features. The enhancement plans also are designed to line up with IT managers' concerns about the weak economy and the need to quantify the value of products before buy them, he said.

AMD also announced that it will release an eight-core chip code-named Valencia for lower-end servers in 2011. That will be part of an Opteron 4000 series for servers that have one or two sockets and are designed to run applications such as e-mail and Web hosting, Patla said.

The new chips will be made using a 32-nanometer manufacturing process, which will support more transistors and should deliver improved energy efficiency and better performance than the 45-nm process that AMD currently uses. Intel plans to ship its first 32-nm chips later this year, although those will be dual-core devices for use in PCs.

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