AMD's dual-core plans keep heat on Intel

AMD has plans for a dual-core version of its 64-bit processor, and meeting its delivery target would mean the company stays hot on Intel's heels

AMD is aiming to release a dual-core version of its 64-bit processors by late 2005 -- a target that would see it keep pace with Intel.

Dr William Siegel, AMD’s chief scientist, told ZDNet UK at the launch of the Athlon 64 in Cannes, France, on Tuesday that the company will launch a dual-core 64-bit processor on the 90-nanometre process -- a figure characterised by the size of the features on the chip.

"As the die size shrinks, there are several possibilities," said Siegel. "Large caches are one thing we are always looking at, and dual cores also become a possibility. At some point in the evolutionary cycle, there comes a limit to how far you can improve performance with a single core on a chip. We will see dual core 64-bit processors in the 90nm process."

The company plans to begin moving its manufacturing process to 90nm early in 2004. "We expect to be shipping processors built on the 90nm production process in volume by the second half of 2004," said Siegel. "We have been making prototypes for some time already. We will begin sampling at significant levels in the second quarter."

Processors based on a 65nm process will follow in late 2005, with volume shipments expected in 2006, he added. Siegel confirmed that this meant a dual-core processor would appear by the end of 2005.

Intel also plans to release a dual-core version of its 64-bit processor by 2005, according to Mike Fister, general manager of Intel's Enterprise Platforms Group, speaking recently at the Intel Developer Conference in San Jose. Fister said Intel will make the move either using its next-generation manufacturing process, which can create circuitry with 90-nanometre features, or using the 65-nanometre generation after that, Fister said.

So far, only IBM sells servers based on these "dual-core" chips, but Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard are working on their own designs, expected as soon as next year. Intel's Itanium, a brand-new design requiring different software than that used with its Pentium and Xeon chips, is designed to compete with these server chips. The 64-bit chip is used mainly in high-end servers that typically run four or more processors.

With each new manufacturing-process generation, circuitry becomes smaller, and more transistors can be fitted on a single silicon chip. Chip designers face the job of finding the best use for all the new transistors at their disposal, and building dual-core processors is one route.

The bigger the processor, the later the transition to dual-core chips can be made. Itanium, at about 400 to 450 square millimetres in size, "is about as big a chip as anybody's ever manufactured," Brookwood said. Itanium 2 currently is built on a 180-nanometre process, but the third-generation "Madison" chip will be built on a 130-nanometre process and thus will shrink to about 200 to 300 square millimetres, Brookwood said.

With 90-nanometre manufacturing, an Itanium would be about 150 square millimetres, Brookwood said, so a dual-core Itanium would be roughly 300 square millimetres, which is a practical size.

At AMD, the Athlon 64, Athlon FX and Opteron processors are already being manufactured on a 130nm process. The die size is 192mm2. A dual-core 64-bit AMD processor is likely to be smaller than a dual-core Itanium: aside from the size reduction from the move to a 90nm production process, said Siegel, the die size would not double (because both cores would share the same cache).

CNET News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report

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