While dual-core processors made a big splash in the chip market last
year, industry observers say multi-core efforts are well on their way.
”Enterprises have no real choice about adopting dual-core any more than
they had about adopting higher frequencies in the past,” says Gordon
Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc., an IT analyst firm based in Nashua,
N.H. ”The cut over has started and will happen rapidly.”
But dual core is really only the beginning.
Intel and AMD already are talking about quad-core architectures being due
within a year or so. And outside of the x86 arena, dual-core is old hat.
IBM, for example, introduced dual-core POWER processors in 2001.
Similarly, Sun Microsystems has long made dual-core SPARC chips, and
recently released the Sun UltraSPARC T1 microprocessor with eight cores.
Intel and AMD, then, have a lot of catching up to do. But their recent
dual-core efforts and ambitious timelines for multi-core products mean
the enterprise server processor architecture is about to undergo a
”Enterprises must either adopt multi core or stick with slower chips,”
The Dual-Core Sprint
In many ways, dual-core x86 technology represents the end of the battle
to see which chip maker could raise clock-frequency the fastest. This
sprint saw the market move from 500 MHz chips to 3 GHz-plus models within
a few years.
Unfortunately, CPU power consumption increased alarmingly as chip
designers pushed the envelope. To speed up transistor performance to
attain a clock frequency boost of 20 percent, for example, it might
require as much as a 50 percent boost in power.
Dual-core designs have made great headway in reversing this trend with a
less-is-more approach. By the simple expedient of lowering the frequency
of each core by 20 percent, both cores use about the same amount of power
as a single-core chip at the higher frequency. This adds up to a
performance boost of 1.7 over single-core designs for the same amount of
”Henceforth, those who need more performance must exploit parallelism —
multiple processors, often on a single silicon die,” says Nathan
Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64, a San Jose, Calif.-based analyst
firm specializing in the semi-conductor market. ”AMD is winning the
dual-core server race.”
Some would characterize AMD’s start as more like having lapped Intel than
having taken an early lead. The company has kept up a barrage of
dual-core announcements since the spring and offers an array of products.
The AMD Opteron dual-core processor is offered in the 100 series (1-way),
the 200 series (up to 2-way) and the 800 series (up to 8-way). It has
four chips available for each category. These range from 1.8 GHz to 2.4
The latest to the hit the market are the x80 chips run at 2.4 GHz. The
dual-core AMD Opteron processor Model 880, for example, is an eight-way,
16-core chip, while the Model 280 is a two-way, four-core version, and
the Model 180 is available for one-processor, two-core servers and
AMD positions the technology in terms of ‘more bang for your buck’ by
providing far more power for less cooling. According to AMD, this
represents a potential annual savings of $50,000 for a datacenter with
500 two-way systems, compared to using Intel-based non-dual-core
alternatives. The company promotes its processors as giving significant
performance gains while operating in the same power and cooling
infrastructure as single-core processors. As a result, fewer servers can
do the job of many, helping to lower operating costs.
This effect is then multiplied by AMD PowerNow technology that enables
servers and workstations to power down processors based on usage. AMD
spokespeople say this can reduce CPU power consumption by 75 percent
during idle time, further decreasing the strain on datacenter cooling and
Not surprisingly, the big server OEMs are getting behind dual-core.
HP added these new chips to its ProLiant servers and workstations. The
AMD Model 880 processor, for example, is now built into the
four-processor/eight-core HP ProLiant DL 585 and BL45p servers, while the
AMD Model 280 chip is part of the two-processor/four-core ProLiant DL385,
DL145, G2, BL25p and BL35p. Sun Microsystems, too, was fast to adopt AMD
dual core. One-, two- and four-way dual-core Sun Fire servers have
already been released.
AMD reports that more than half the Opteron chips it ships are now dual
core. Within a year, the company expects that percentage to be close to
Who is buying?
Enterprises appear to be using dual-core in general IT infrastructure
servers, as well as in databases, Cirix clients, and in high-performance
computing (HPC). Corporate IT systems currently optimized for symmetrical
multiprocessing (SMP) multi-threaded applications, in particular, should
see big performance leaps by using multi-core processors.
Penn State University’s research computing department, for example, is
using SunFire dual-core V40z servers in a compute cluster to run various
engineering, mathematical, and scientific calculations. These four-way,
eight-core 2.2 GHz machines have 32 GB of memory.
”Dual-core technology is one of the most significant advances of the
past five years,” says Vijay Agarwala, director of HPC and visualization
at Penn State University. ”Sun’s new dual-core Opteron systems allow the
university to almost double its processing core capacity while
maintaining the same heat and real-estate footprint.”
Another fan of dual core is Mark Kapczynski, CEO of MESoft, Inc., a media
technology company based in Burbank, Calif. MESoft uses AMD Opteron to
capture, edit, and render TV and movies. The company is constantly
looking for the fastest servers and processors in order to match or
better the quality of programming available with analog video
MESoft initially deployed Intel Xeon quad processors about three years
ago. Due to poor performance, it switched to AMD Opteron quads and
noticed a dramatic improvement, says Kapczynski. The company recently
added four dual-core machines.
”We see most throughput advance with dual-core on our capture and
encoding boxes that take in massive amounts of High-Definition digital
data at a rate of 1.5 Gb per second,” says Kapczynski. ”We are now
getting equal or better performance with two dual-core Opterons compared
to our older Opteron 4-way processors.”
Who is the Turtle?
Intel has suffered a heavy beating in the media due to its sluggish start
with dual-core server processors. But it would be foolish to discount the
companys ability to narrow the gap. It accomplished exactly that, after
all, with 64-bit technology. AMD raced ahead at the start and gained a
lead of more than a year. Yet within six months of the launch of 64-bit
Xeon processors, Intel had sold three times as many x86 64-bit processors
Intel recently began to release some products to market starting with a
dual-core Pentium D processor-based platform for entry-level
one-processor servers. This was followed in the past few weeks with the
release of dual-core Xeon chips. The dual-core Intel Xeon processor 7000
sequence, formerly named Paxville MP, for example, offers speeds of up to
3.0 GHz and a 667 MHz dual independent system bus for servers with four
or more processors.
Next will come dual-core Itanium processors and further up the line, a
quad-core processor, codenamed Tigerton, is said to be released sometime
in 2007. In total, 15 multi-core projects are underway. The company has
set the goal of 85 percent of its server processors being dual-core
capable by the end of this year.
Some analysts characterize the dual-core race as being a match between
the nimble AMD versus a ponderous and failing Intel. Others, however, see
it as another example of the turtle and the hare — AMD races ahead,
while Intel plods on and eventually wins.
”Intel is playing catchup with dual-core AMD Opteron,” says Haff. ”But
Intel is back on track strategically and now it’s a matter of which
company can execute best over the next couple of years.”
And whoever wins, it seems certain that within a year or less, the market
will have transitioned almost totally to dual-core technology.
”Every new system we buy will be dual core,” says Kapczynski. ”It’s a
win whatever way you look at it — speed, performance, footprint, overall
cost and heat.”
Sun Moves Beyond
Both AMD and Intel are far behind Sun in multi-core technology.
Brookwood talks about UltraSPARC’s eight-cores as being far in
advance of its x86 rivals. In terms of wattage alone, Sun consumes 70
watts compared to 90 for AMD and 120 to 150 for Intel. Furthermore, its
performance lead also is significant.
”The Sun UltraSPARC T1 performs at a level of four or five Dual Core
Opteron for some workloads,” says Brookwood.
That’s why Intel and AMD both have announced the arrival of quad-core
products over the next year or two. According to Brookwood, AMD seems on
course to bring a quad-core Opteron to market by the end of this year or
early in 2007. Intel is lagging behind, though, and may struggle to
release a quad-core Xeon during the course of next year.