Intel vs. AMD: Does the CPU really matter?

Intel vs. AMD: Does the CPU really matter?

Summary: Intel and AMD are at it again. But does the processor in the box affect the purchase decision?

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With the knowledge in hand that AMD was announcing their Opteron 6000 series of CPUs this week in response to last week's release of Intel's 5600 Xeon, I started talking to the folks responsible for actually making the purchasing decisions for a few large SMB customers as well as consultants to Fortune 500-size datacenter customers.   I asked them one simple question; does the processor in the box affect the purchase decision?

The answer was a mixed bag, but boiled down to this; maybe.

Unsurprisingly, much of the interest in these two new CPU releases depended upon the point in the equipment replacement cycle of the IT guy I asked.  A common thread was the sit back and watch attitude, though everyone was excited, if that is  the right word, to move their 1P to 4P servers to these new, higher core count, higher performance, CPUs, when the opportunity presented itself.  These folks have the luxury of watching the market and the media and making use of the information that appears about the performance and value of the two platforms over the next few months.

One IT guy I talked to put it very succinctly; "I don't have a dog in this race. My job is to spend my budget as effectively as possible." He didn't care which processor was in the box; he only buys from top tier server vendors and for his area of responsibility, squeezing the last erg of performance out of a server wasn't really the concern; stability, reliability, and meeting the less compute-intensive needs of his business unit were the driving factor.

"My job is to spend my budget as effectively as possible"

Contrast this with the director of a database server computing unit I spoke with. In his case he was a diehard Intel fan and his belief was that even with more cores, the AMD CPUs wouldn't deliver the performance of the new Intel processors, but he was hedging his bets. He did plan to evaluate the offerings from his vendor of choice to determine if the larger number of cores would make a difference in his environment.

Given that AMD seems to have chosen to focus on value and energy efficiency, it is likely that his testing will still show that the Xeon 5600 series will hold an edge, in his application, over the Opteron 6000.

For really serious interest in the potential of the AMD 8 and 12 core processors I had to step out of the large datacenter space to the guys that buy only a few servers at a time. For IT folks supporting smaller server groups they expressed interest in seeing published performance numbers for these new CPUs and a willingness to purchase if they were a good value for their more tightly constrained budgets.

Bigger datacenter managers didn't really focus on the buy-in cost of their new servers. They have far more interest in the ongoing expenses related to the servers, and as most of the ones I know tend to buy from a specific server vendor, they already have an excellent idea of the projected costs of their server platforms over the usable life of the hardware. When viewed from this perspective, the price delta between the Intel and AMD offerings isn't really significant.

Energy utilization in this scenario has the potential to be a purchasing issue, but evaluating the actual energy consumption of the servers in real-world use is going to be a much more difficult metric to define.  While the power consumption numbers of the processors are clear, the value of the power vs. workload metric, for any specific user scenario, is rarely easily seen, especially in short term testing.

One group I really haven't been able to get feedback from yet are those that use software with per-core, as opposed to per CPU licensing. Doubling or tripling the number of cores in their servers could have a very deleterious effect on their budget numbers regardless of performance improvements. Users of Microsoft server OSes don't need to worry; their license is per processor, not per core. VMware licenses currently allow up to 12 cores per processor, so for the moment, VMware users are also unaffected. Following up on this for software that is still licensed per core will need to wait for a later post.

It's been a long time since the CPU was the sole deciding choice for a server platform in major business. The package delivered from the server vendor; that combination of price, support, experience, and reliability, is usually much more important than the vendor name that appears on the CPU.

Topics: Intel, Data Centers, Hardware, Processors, Servers, Storage

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36 comments
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  • Mix

    We have a mix of AMD and Intel based machines. For some
    applications the processor is VERY important - basically we benchtest
    one against the other for the application (under simulated load). The
    winner then has the application highly tuned for it and deployed on
    that. All things being equal. Of course, where a processor needs very
    specific tuning (or rather offers scope for very specific tuning) then
    we'll explore that in addition to the raw "naked benchtest".

    For other applications the processor is very much a "meh" item, we
    have lots of these where the speed of the disk (or lack of) makes
    worrying about the processor utterly pointless.

    I don't much care if the sticker is blue or green - it's a
    cost/performance issue, I'm not picking a football team!
    Jeremy-UK
  • RE: Intel vs. AMD: Does the CPU really matter?

    I eval a lot of servers and I still think the matter is open. Because of the duel threaded core for Intel it gets better performance than AMD with a ESX but for stand alone apps I think it is a draw but AMD has an edge because of price and power consumption I would most likely go with the AMD for these types of apps. Both Dell and HP have a slightly different approach in deploying these chips. I think they are going after a slightly different market if you look at the next generation of servers.
    treeves1
  • RE: Intel vs. AMD: Does the CPU really matter?

    does the name brand matter? I'm just average joe, using the home computer. I prefer,..amd,..but my local shop sells intel.

    go from there.

    I prefer diet A & W vs coke but if you can't find it you can't buy it, huh?

    so yes,,,.brand matters to me. but if you can't get it, you can't get it.
    varick
  • RE: Intel vs. AMD: Does the CPU really matter?

    Hi, any company that gets 3 Billion fines in antitrust lawsuits is out for me, I simply don't trust Intel anymore. AMD gives you more performance for the dollar!!!
    Pyrotech_z
  • RE: Intel vs. AMD: Does the CPU really matter?

    In my home everthing is WIN/TEL.

    When I made IT decisions it was 97/3 WINTEL vs. AMD.

    It doesn't matter what is said, I matters where its spent.
    hornkt
  • RE: Intel vs. AMD: Does the CPU really matter?

    I go with whichever gives me the most bang for the buck.
    mlrodman9
  • RE: Intel vs. AMD: Does the CPU really matter?

    While I use Linux on desktops, I choose AMD. Most Linux Distros have a version compiled for AMD64 which is better optimized from the start for the current processors. However with a large enough deployment you could compile the O/S from scratch tuned for the processor your using for improved performance the clone it onto the each desktop. Also useful for any software you get the source for, after suitable testing of course.
    jim77kahn
  • A mini mainframe in a box ?

    Increasing cores has a very interesting affect on several fronts. Disk frames, 8GB REQUIRED infrastructures, Faster and more expensive memory and more channels to memory and disk, higher heat dissipation requirements SAN factors that have not been previously mentioned. On those systems that have increased core counts, the whole system has to be engineered to take advantage of it. If they are heavy lift database type systems (exchange/SQL/Oracle) they will succumb to restrictions in other resources, that can be mitigated some by increasing RAM, buffers, etc. and at that point, if the pipelines to the RAM DMA chips can then become overwhelmed until it becomes the bottleneck.

    This also drives the price of other items such as memory and increased speed/densities, higher speed SAN infrastructures, etc. Sure you can get more in less space. But can the data centers physically handle the heat dissipation at that density. And so is this really effectively green in power and money?

    Granted, the spin off is keeping a lot of other vendors trying to cope with the ever changing processor changes in the line, but are we really ready for this much computing in such a small system.

    I have dealt with per CORE licensing with products such as IBM's Websphere or TSM. The cost of backing up a server goes through the roof. Performance monitoring software typically also tends to go up, as well.

    In short, the net result is that when most organizations attempted to move away from the mainframe to open systems the commodity market said more lighter weight servers in parallel, reducing a single failure to some insignificant event.

    Now that we are migrating back open systems to having huge processing capabilities, have we creating the new mini-mainframe?
    ebanksto
  • Intel vs. AMD?

    Really, I think that this battle Intel-AMD doesn't make sense. The signature AMD has been thought for the market of the graphic design, some games and the film market. As for Intel, it is full well-known that is the unquestionable leader as for multimedia, numeric prosecution and multitasking. It is only question of knowing the possibilities and benefits of both processors.
    ERRM130578
  • RE: Intel vs. AMD: Does the CPU really matter?

    While it's not the sole identifying purchase factor, it is big from my perspective. I like the underdog company. They generally try harder and make a slightly better product because of that part of the peer to peer competition. In the current case it's AMD.
    tnourie
  • Reviews!

    Looking forward on reviews of both CPU, in speed processing, power consuming and heat!
    Gradius2
  • I for one would love love love 12 cores: superfast video and 3D rendering

    For those of us in video and 3D creation, we can use
    more cores like yesterday, and this has nothing to do
    with servers. And this is not exactly exotic: anyone
    who shoots and edits an HD video camera falls into
    this category. Software in this sector can already
    make use of multiple cores to drastically speed up
    frame by frame video rendering and 3D animation
    creation. This stuff takes hours for just a few
    minutes of finished video. 12 cores would be like
    having your own render farm on one machine. And it
    pretty much scales linearly, that is, 12 cores is 3
    times as fast as 4 cores and 6 times as fast as a dual
    core.
    ArtInvent
  • At one point, it mattered...

    At one time in computer history, it mattered what CPU you were running if you were running a server or high-end workstation. I can remember running some apps that didn't like the AMD processors because of the "divide by zero" error that frequently popped up. At one point, anybody with serious computing power was running a SPARC station or something similar, because they were better at crunching numbers. This was before Intel and AMD were big in the server market.

    For the home user, it rarely mattered, and still doesn't, other than that AMD is usually cheaper per spec than Intel.

    Personally, I'm an Intel fan. I use Intel for my personal computers. For my clients, who want better savings, I use AMD except for serious crunching machines, like servers or high-end workstations.
    blackepyon01
  • For a virtualized environment...

    I'm looking at compute density over pretty much anything else. My server room real estate is at a premium and if AMD's higher core density helps me achieve my goals in a smaller amount of rack space, then that's what I'll buy. Besides, after you factor in the other costs of a server infrastructure (storage, I/O switching etc). the cost of the chip in the box isn't all that important. Looking at the bigger picture, there are costs that far outweigh the difference between an AMD and Intel cpu.
    Snuffy.
    • other factors in the equation

      If a higher core density increases thermal and power loads, you aren't necessarily acheiving a savings in anything but real estate.
      ehyates
  • CPU doesn't matter - platform strategy does

    And sorry to say to Intel, but they just don't have it.

    AMD has a better platform strategy over all.

    AMD has simplified their product lineup immensely, while Intel's just continues to get more complicated, and their platform is weak at best.

    Sure, Intel has the fastest CPU's, but does that matter anymore? What about scalability, chipset, and graphics support?

    Intel is putting a big roof over their head with only one strong pillar. AMD has several solid pillars.
    Joe_Raby
  • Intel vs AMD - for long batt life laptops Intel is Ahead

    Not that many really low power utilizing CPUs in AMD's camp. Intel offers a number of CULV dual core CPUs that when used with other lower power using components, give a laptop that can do 8 hours, WiFi on.
    daves1646
    • are you sure about that?

      i mean a server based procssor can be put into a laptop and run on batery power for 8 +hours with wifi switched on?

      ohh and since theres 36+hours batteries out there for standard laptops running either processor thats not really saying much, it all depends on the battery specs really, and amd's systems always had an edge on that a few years ago when they realized no one cares apart from a few marketing geeks, people just want something that works and works well /
      nanotm
  • Not unless your about micro seconds

    Not really, in todays world most could not tell what CPU was
    running their computer unless they checked the System
    information or looked at the sticker on the case. Only geeks
    and freaks are really interested in CPU cycles and cache.
    To most people if it will do what I want it to do. That will do.
    jscott418-22447200638980614791982928182376
    • AMD running at a lower speed equals Intel at a higher GHz

      Intel may have the fastest CPUs. But the don't have the fastest CPU when it comes to performance vs GHz.

      The difference is speed between an AMD Phenom running @ 2GHz compare to an Intel Core running @ 2.93GHz is so little ... in terms of performance, AMD is a better platform.

      Sure if your app is time hungry and every nano-second count, then Intel is the only choice (on the x86 platform). For everything else, AMD is the best bank to your bucks.
      wackoae