AMD hopes to break Intel server dominance with new 32-core Naples chip

The company could use a pricing advantage to take server chip market share from the dominant Intel

The outspoken Forrest Norrod has never shied away from challenges. Previously, as a server chief at Dell, he helped the company's data-center hardware business flourish, and he loved experimenting with new types of servers.

He has a new challenge as AMD's server chief: to bring back the glory days of chipmaker's server business, which is now in tatters. A mega-chip called Naples, which has 32 cores and is based on the Zen architecture, will be the first test of AMD's return to the server market.

The Naples chip will ship to server makers in the second quarter of this year. The benchmarks of Naples are competitive with Intel's chips in head-to-head comparisons, said Norrod, senior vice president and general manager of AMD's Enterprise, Embedded, and Semi-Custom Business Group.

AMD's return will add much-needed competition to the server chip market, which Intel dominates. Intel has more than a 90 percent market share, and AMD's goal is to steadily siphon off customers.

Customers may welcome AMD's server chips because Intel's chips are priced high, with the most expensive chip selling for US$8,898. Lower priced AMD chips could give customers bargaining power.

"If we look at how they price their consumer products, it stands to reason that the versions of Naples will also undercut Intel's pricing," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

An AMD discount is already happening with the company's new Ryzen desktop chips, which are significantly cheaper than Intel's gaming chips.

The Naples server chips are based on the x86 architecture, but they don't have an official name yet. AMD was once a legitimate threat to Intel, but a series of missteps killed its server business. The decline started with the heavily criticized Bulldozer architecture, and the company later bet its server future on ARM chips, but slow demand knocked the company out of servers.

Naples won't be the only server chip based on Zen. More chips will be revealed as the server chip launch comes closer, Norrod said. Not everyone will buy a 32-core chip, so AMD may release server chips with fewer cores.

The response to Zen has so far been "delightful," Norrod said.

Zen server chips are targeted at single- and two-socket servers, which are used for general-purpose and cloud applications. A two-socket system could have eight memory channels, which could help with in-memory applications like databases, which require more bandwidth.

Naples will have more I/O and memory capacity than comparable Intel chips, Narrod said. Those features should help with machine learning, especially when the chip is paired with co-processors like GPUs. AMD hopes to pair Zen server chips with its upcoming Vega GPU, which will be tuned for machine learning.

The high-bandwidth fabric linking two sockets in the chips is unique, which makes them ideal for two-socket servers, Brookwood said.

AMD has already licensed its new server architecture to THATIC (Tianjin Haiguang Advanced Technology Investment Co. Ltd.), a joint venture in China that is making surrogate Zen chips for the local market. That doesn't mean AMD will hold its Naples chips from the China market, Norrod said.

The Naples chip will take on Intel's Skylake server chips, which are scheduled to be used by Google in its cloud servers. One area where the AMD chips will fall short is in high-performance applications, where Intel chips could excel. Intel's Skylake server chips will have AVX-512 to run vectorized applications, while AMD's chips have only AVX-128.

There are some algorithms that can benefit from AVX-512, and Intel has been in the high-performance computing area longer than AMD, Brookwood said.

"Intel knows where those codes are buried," while AMD is still trying to discover the market, Brookwood said.

There are some applications that will run better on Intel's chips, Norrod said. But AMD's Naples has its own unique features that could help the company come firing back into the server market, he said.

In the end, if AMD's chip is competitive on performance, even if slightly slower, customers will consider using it.

"If you have comparable performance, then pricing's a big deal," Brookwood said.

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