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Intel, AMD Face Off in Quad-Core War

By Chris Maxcer
Sep 12, 2007 7:53 AM PT

In the latest x86-based server processor war between Intel and AMD, both companies are on the offensive. Last week, Intel preemptively launched the first strike with its Xeon 7300 series, and Monday, AMD rolled out its Quad-Core AMD Opteron series.

Intel, AMD Face Off in Quad-Core War

Both claim the quad-core name, but Intel's version is built with two dual-core chips bundled together to get to four cores while AMD's solution bundles four processors on a single die of silicon.

For the first time in years, both companies have released strong offerings at essentially the same time. Which processor is better? Who has the upper hand? Will the differences between their quad-core architectures lead to one gaining an advantage over the other?

Shifting Winds

While Intel is the much larger company, over the last several years, the balance of power has shifted from Intel to AMD and then back again to Intel. When AMD launched its Opteron processor technology around 2003, the move proved that an x86 processor could run both 32-bit and 64-bit applications -- without a 32-bit performance hit. AMD rapidly gained server market share, not to mention mind share, both of which essentially gave then-leading Intel a kick in the x86 server pants.

"What Intel has been doing over the past year or so is catching up," Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld. "The company took an awfully long time to respond to Opteron when it originally came out."

Faster to Market

Intel introduced its first "quad-core" series processors in late 2006/2007.

"One of the big differences between to the two companies is that Intel chose to go for a time-to-market strategy, so their quad-core is really two dual cores in a single package," Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for Insight64, told TechNewsWorld.

"It got them to market nine months earlier, and they shipped a million of them, so it's hard to say that it was a bad strategy because it generated a lot of business," he explained. "AMD took the time to do a more elegant chip, which gave Intel those nine months, but AMD's chip certainly has an architectural advantage."

Speed vs. Architecture

Intel's Xeon quads are running at faster processing speeds, up to 2.93 GHz, while AMD's are running at 2.0 GHz.

"Intel has a substantial frequency advantage, while AMD has a fairly substantial architecture advantage," Brookwood said, noting that both advantages may effectively cancel each other out. Plus, early benchmarking data may not reflect real-world business use, leading to even closer performance measurements.

"AMD put out some data yesterday that said a lot of Intel's perceived advantage comes from benchmarks where Intel has been able to use some very highly optimized compiler technology that turns out to be good for benchmarks but isn't broadly used by third party software developers," Brookwood explained. "As a result, the benchmarks tend to overstate Intel's performance. Developers by and large use compilers like the GNU compiler GCC, which doesn't do quite as much optimization, so when you look at the benchmarks on Intel and AMD using the GCC compilers, AMD has a slight edge -- but we're only talking about single digit performance advantages either way."

In December, AMD plans to release Quad-Core Opterons running at 2.5 GHz, which might put them ahead in raw performance. "Of course, Intel is talking about 3 GHz with its 45 nanometer architecture [in a similar timeframe], and so we'll be revisiting this battle in three-to-six months intervals over the next 18 months," Brookwood noted.

Performance Per Watt

AMD has typically led Intel in terms of lower energy consumption, but does energy consumption matter as much as performance in high-end x86 servers where these quad-cores will be used?

"Energy efficiency definitely matters in the quad-core battle -- it matters more than ever in virtually all server segments," Brookwood said.

"The Intel and AMD chips use comparable amounts of power when they are running full-out, and I think the AMD chips can idle using slightly less power. Intel chips require power-intensive support chips and memory technology that uses more power, so the more memory modules you have, the worse the Intel power consumption equation looks. AMD has a slight advantage, but I'm not sure it's enough to sway people one way or another," he explained.

Almost as Good - or Better?

AMD's delay to release its Quad-Core Opteron processors this year injected a bit of doubt into the market, but this week's release seems to have reinforced some earlier x86 server opinions.

"I think AMD has always suffered to a certain extent with the 'almost-as-good-as-Intel' label, but with Opteron, I think the company has proven itself to be as good or even better," King said. "Now, this is the first time since Opteron that one company hasn't had the upper hand."

Overall, the potential for a stalemate on the quad-core battlefield may prove to be a boon for both Intel and AMD.

"I'm anticipating that, because both companies feel they have a strong offering, they will be less inclined to use discounts as a way to gain or maintain market share," Brookwood said. "We may see some price stability in this market segment so that both companies can make some money, which would be good -- especially for AMD, which really needs to make some money."


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