AMD faces tough fight with dual Athlons

AMD's launches its first chipset able to handle dual Athlon processors, but the Palomino-based Duron could be the real winner
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

AMD yesterday unveiled its latest push into the lucrative market for high-end computers such as workstations and servers, but some observers remain sceptical about the company's chances against 800-pound-gorilla Intel.

AMD announced its first platform capable of handling multiple processors, the Athlon MP and the AMD-760 MP chipset. Multiple processors are necessary for entry into computing-intensive applications such as graphics workstations or Web servers. The move initiates AMD's first major push beyond the value-oriented and mainstream desktop PCs in which the Athlon has made its mark over the last two years.

At a launch event in Munich, AMD demonstrated multiple-processor workstations running real-time animation and graphics rendering, and showed off several sets of benchmarks. There were, however, no benchmarks comparing the system with what some consider its direct competition, Intel's recently-launched dual Xeon. The new Xeon systems are based on Intel's Pentium 4 chip.

AMD suggested this was because of availability problems on Intel's side. "We couldn't buy one," said Robert Stead, AMD's European Marketing Director.

The new Athlon MP is based on a new processor core code-named Palomino, on which all of AMD's multi-processor products will be built. AMD made it clear that the previous Athlon, code-named Thunderbird, was not designed for multi-processing.

"If you put Thunderbirds into the multi-processing infrastructure, there is a good chance they might not work," said Rich Heye, vice president of platform engineering and infrastructure for the Computation Products Group at AMD.

Nor will Duron, the low-priced spin-off of Athlon, work with the multi-processing chipset. But a Palomino-based Duron is on the way in the second half of this year, AMD said. It is code-named Morgan and will run at greater than 900MHz.

Athlon MP is AMD's foot in the door where it comes to workstations and servers, but it is merely paving the way for Hammer, a series of 64-bit processors to arrive late next year. Intel recently held a formal launch for its Itanium 64-bit processor, which has been slowly rolling out this year.

Hammer will have to compete directly with Itanium, but unlike Intel's chip, AMD's "x86-64" architecture is optimised to run existing 32-bit applications as well as customised 64-bit applications.

AMD says there are as yet no plans for 64-bit Windows on Hammer. "We are holding a good dialogue with Microsoft on the issue," Heye said. "The expectation over time is that they wil support it."

Besides Intel, servers bring AMD into competition with established giants such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems.

As for workstations, AMD will have its work cut out for it trying to carve out market share, according to analyst Jon Hardcastle of Gartner Dataquest. "The workstation market is stagnant," he said. Overall, the market has shrunk by 10 percent over the last year, according to analysts.

AMD said the multi-processing Athlon and chipset are available immediately "in reasonable quantities". A multiprocessing motherboard is available immediately from Tyan, and more will be released in the third quarter of this year.

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