Intel vs. AMD still isn't a fair fight

Intel vs. AMD still isn't a fair fight

Summary: There are more hindrances to AMD’s ability to penetrate the market with its Opteron CPUs; and Intel’s not a fault this time. In an earlier blog post on the AMD-Intel settlement I brought up an example of a type of incompatibility that exists between the two CPU makers that isn’t covered by the settlement – live migration of virtual machines.


There are more hindrances to AMD’s ability to penetrate the market with its Opteron CPUs; and Intel’s not a fault this time. In an earlier blog post on the AMD-Intel settlement I brought up an example of a type of incompatibility that exists between the two CPU makers that isn’t covered by the settlement – live migration of virtual machines. There’s more to this story.

Today, virtual infrastructure administrators cannot live migrate server images from an Intel-based server to an AMD-based server and back. The reason isn’t because Intel is blocking AMD, but that it requires special software to achieve. This software provides a layer of abstraction and translation from the specific CPU instructions that differ across the two CPU types (this also applies to different CPU types from the same vendor, BTW). Most hypervisors and virtual machines check what CPU type they are running on only at boot time and thus become rather shaky when live migration moves them to another CPU type. AMD has published a white paper detailing this and has done its part by building and providing this software but the hypervisor providers haven’t added this software to their distributions. Until they do, AMD will remain shut out of many virtual environments.

You would think that with the contentious (and litigious) nature of the CPU market that the hypervisor vendors would want to stay out of this fray and would want as large a market available to them as possible. Turns out, the answer isn’t that simple and comes down to the usual ISV concerns that center around any new feature they might add — business justification.

We spoke with Citrix, the flag bearer of open source XenServer; Red Hat, who is pushing the alternative open source hypervisor, KVM, Microsoft and VMware. The answer from each was relatively consistent: there isn’t enough market demand for this to justify the expense of qualifying the software.

A Citrix spokesperson said, “Honestly, we haven’t been asked for this by anyone — customers tend to have relatively homogeneous server roll-outs.” No surprise. When the hypervisor can only do live migration within a homogeneous server family, why would you roll out anything else? Sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, Citrix added, “it is high on our priority list.”

Red Hat acknowledged at least some market demand for this. AMD and Red Hat posted a video demonstrating this capability to YouTube in November 2008. Red Hat’s spokesperson said that this code is still evolving and characterized it as, “nowhere close for production use.” And even if Red Hat started the quality assurance process on this software today, it would be “6 - 12 months” before this could be added to its official KVM distribution.

Microsoft and VMware echoed these comments.

VMware added that this isn’t a simple QA exercise. As the market leaders in virtualization their key objective is to reinforce the enterprise readiness of server virtualization by proving that it is ready for mission critical workloads and delivers high fault tolerance. This higher bar means more corner cases that have to be tested and heterogeneous live migration just adds another risk factor. “The last thing we want to happen is a fatal error across the [CPU] instruction sets that results in an outage for the customer,” a VMware spokesperson stated.

To address the technical side, VMware said it will take a three-way partnership between it, AMD, and Intel jointly testing, qualifying, and then supporting this solution. Such a partnership is certainly feasible; it would be similar to the joint integration efforts by Microsoft and Novell to ensure Linux and Windows integration.

The bigger issue, however, may be business justification. As any ISV will tell you they have significantly more requests for new features, integrations, and solution certifications than they do resources and time and thus have to prioritize these efforts against a business justification. They need to see that customers want this and how much larger a market they will be able to address by doing this work. And with most enterprises deploying homogeneous infrastructure for their virtual environments, it makes cross-CPU certification a tough sell.

All of this makes the challenge look very much like a chicken and egg situation for AMD. It can’t raise its market share in virtual environments without this software qualified and available from the hypervisor vendors; and it can’t get them to qualify it without market share justification. AMD could potentially buy its way onto these ISVs’ priority lists but as VMware stated, there is prevailing concern that if it isn’t a three-way effort with AMD and Intel both at their table, the likelihood of success would be severely diminished. Clearly such an effort would be in AMD’s best interest; hard to see how Intel would see it as such. And one source suggested that bringing Intel the table might be a very tall order given the amount of money it’s already expended appeasing AMD, “…of course, there is a certain other chip vendor who will likely have an opinion on the matter, so we’re piggy-in-the-middle!”

AMD plans in 2010 to further advance its server CPU and motherboard capabilities by increasing the memory bandwidth per core even further and to increase the core count per CPU. These enhancements seem well suited to virtual environments but will there be an addressable market for them?

What’s your opinion? Should virtualization vendors adjust their priorities so you have CPU choice? Clearly they need to hear from you on this issue in order to adjust their priorities.

Topics: Virtualization, Hardware, Intel, Processors, Servers, VMware

James Staten

About James Staten

James Staten is a Vice President and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, serving Infrastructure and Operations professionals.

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  • I only use AMD products Intel can play hardball

    It will only hurt them in the long run.
  • This is probably one of AMD's last problems

    The first problem is to field a competitive product in
    the first place. When it takes more than twice the core
    count to compete with Intel Nehalem, they have a serious
    competitive problem.
    • well

      you use an article that was written almost a year ago and which was based on something that went on general release for amd 6 months previous to that and an intel portfolio that still wasnt in large scale release, the probelm for amd in most respects has been the strangle hold intel has placed over the system builders which they already received punative fines for in the EU.

      the amd based servers outperform the intell ones on the price per server point, there running costs were lower and there ability to survive problems casued by excessive heat (liek the cooling system failing) are more than double that of intel based products to say the author of that article wsa biased would be mild, if an author of a magazine used the text out of a product brochure for any thing other than a comparison they would get screamed at (unless the mag was paid to do that by the manufacturer which is what intel routinly does/did)

      overall amd based systems (server or desktop) are better value for money and more reliable than intel based systems.

      this problem just typifies the anti competative nature of intel and there marketing practices, lets face it 10 years ago they were given a 1/2 billion dollar fine for knowingly selling defective cpu's (they burst into flames below 100 degrees centigrade when under load) 10 years later there still throwing money about like its water and yet again receive a fine, who knows in another few decades they might be competent enough to produce a product that is reasonably priced and actually does what it says on the box for more than 12 months w/o having problems.
      • well then it's settled

        nothing but AMD for me. Cause cptn anonymous gave some anecdotal evidence.

        Links or it didn't happen.
      • No sir, just over half a year ago and still very relevant

        No sir, just over half a year ago and still very
        relevant. Not much has changed other than AMD
        Istanbul 6-core, but it's still being slaughtered
        by Intel Nehalem-EP 4-core servers. We're also on
        the verge of Nehalem-EX 8-core multiprocessor (MP)
        • You really need to dial it back


          Haven't we told you countless times that phrases like "slaughtered" really don't do anything for your points?


          We've got a pretty big VM server infrastructure here that's all AMD. Why? Well, that brand new Nehalem architecture that you're so keen on didn't exist back when they were building out the hardware. The previous Intel chips of course have the shared memory bus and that just doesn't scale as well when you're trying to run near 100% usage with those VM's.

          Apparently Intel agrees since they abandoned that architecture for the one that there were so busy putting down before...
          Robert Crocker
  • RE: Intel vs. AMD still isn't a fair fight

    Every processor Intel makes is just an incremental advance on the architecture they got when the Apollo DN1000 chip came off patent protection.

    THAT is why you need more than one company making processor chips.
  • Sun Virtualbox Teleportation
  • RE: Intel vs. AMD still isn't a fair fight

    I honestly don't think this is even a serious question. When you have a requirement for high-availability servers, then the last thing you want to deal with is more variables. For high-availability, last thing that you want to do is mix and match hardware: you'll want everything exactly the same between all machines that you migrate between. You'll even go so far as to make sure you have exactly the same motherboards with exactly the same firmware. You may not only want processors from the same vendor, but you'll want the exact same revision of those processors. So whether you currently have Intel or AMD, you will naturally lock out the other vendor if want to keep your environment stable. It works equally against Intel as it does against AMD.
  • RE: Intel vs. AMD still isn't a fair fight

    I've been in the computer business for nearly 30 years. I've experienced processors from Intel; AMD; Cyrix, etc. Over these years there has always been this "fair fight" rhetoric and I for one laugh at it! Since when is business competition EVER "fair"? Rather-even SUPPOSED to be fair? I build custom PC's based on my clients needs, and only use Intel processors unless the client specifically asks for AMD. This is due to the direct correlation of MY experience with processors, and their failures rates! I have had more 'bad' experiences with AMD than Intel, so therefore am I guilty of the perpetuation of "AMD is not getting a fair fight"? AMD is exactly what Intel needs---- Just enough competition to keep them continually evolving better chips and innovations, and keeping prices low enough to afford the quality that we need!