Intel and AMD Battle for the Server

AMD enters the multiprocessor-system horse race

Not that long ago, the "Intel Inside" sticker was standard fare on just about all business systems. Low-end systems designed for home use were virtually the only ones to offer an alternative to Intel. These systems typically had the reputation of being inferior to Intel systems, whether or not they deserved that reputation.

However, the only constant is change, and nowhere is this adage truer than in the computer industry. AMD's release of the Athlon chip in August 1999 transformed AMD from another low-end supplier to a viable competitor in the high-end desktop and workstation business market. Now, virtually all PC suppliers, with the notable exception of Dell, offer systems based on AMD processors as well as systems based on the Intel Pentium line of processors. The Athlon is widely regarded as superior to Pentium chips of the same clock speed. The high performance of the Athlon has all but eliminated the stigma that non-Intel processors are inferior to their Intel counterparts. To read about one power user's decision to purchase an Athlon-based system, see John Ruley, Windows 2000 Pro, "Choosing a New Win2K Pro System," page 93.

Intel: Fast out of the Gate
Although the desktop market has been hotly contested since the release of the Athlon, Intel has maintained a total lock on the server side. Unlike the Athlon, which has been limited to single-CPU systems, Intel's Pentium line has long had the ability to support SMP systems. The standard Pentium III processor provides support for dual-CPU systems, and the Pentium III Xeon processor provides a much higher level of SMP support. In its position at the high end of the Intel processor line, the Xeon is expressly designed for server-side implementations. The current version of the Xeon chip runs at 700MHz and can utilize a full-speed 2MB Level 2 cache. The Xeon CPU uses the multiprocessor-enabled Intel 450NX PCIset or the Intel Profusion chipset and supports system bus speeds of 100MHz.

Over the past year, a Who's Who of vendors released 32-way systems using the Xeon processor; the list comprises Amdahl, Bull, Compaq, Dell, Fujitsu Siemens, Hewlett-Packard (HP), IBM, NEC, Stratus, and Unisys. Some of these companies are also on the Windows 2000 Datacenter Server Hardware Compatibility List (HCL).

AMD: Coming Up on the Outside
Intel won't be the only horse in the server-side race for long. AMD's forthcoming AMD-760 MP chipset will let system suppliers use Athlon processors in multiprocessor configurations. AMD expects this next generation of Athlon systems to come out of the gate running at 1.2GHz with more than 256KB of full-speed Level 2 cache. Along with the new AMD-760 MP chipset, the multiprocessor Athlon system will also support the EV6 bus originally used in the Digital Equipment Alpha systems and Double Data Rate (DDR) RAM, which will essentially provide a 100 percent increase over SDRAM processor-to-memory throughput. Initially, AMD will offer dual-processor systems for small to midsized servers. But AMD plans future versions of its 64-bit chip, code-named Sledgehammer, to push into the arena of 4-way and 8-way systems.

Full support of the x86 architecture in AMD's 32-bit Athlon and upcoming 64-bit Sledgehammer should make both CPUs viable options for Win2K Server and Win2K Advanced Server implementations as soon as the processors are available. The AMD architectures should theoretically support 32-way systems, but it's too early for AMD to announce plans for a 32-way implementation. So for now, Datacenter will remain Intel-only inside.

Time will tell whether AMD will gain the same respect in the server market as it has in the consumer desktop market. However, this competition ensures that the selection of fast servers will be better than ever. When two companies are fighting the battle of server-side computing, consumers are the real winners.

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