AMD hits its stride

No longer playing catch-up, AMD sees an opportunity to race ahead of bigger rival Intel, says CTO Fred Weber.

Stay on top of the latest tech news with our free IT News Digest newsletter, delivered each weekday. Automatically sign up today!

By John G. Spooner
Staff Writer, CNET News.com

Chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices often attempts to make up whatever it might lack in size with a pragmatic approach toward its competition against bigger rival Intel.

But that doesn't mean AMD can be dismissed as an also-ran, according to company CTO Fred Weber. In fact, over the last few years, the PC industry, including Intel, has followed AMD in making the transition from 32-bit software to 64-bit software. Weber recently spoke with CNET News.com about how that transition is forcing changes in hardware, as well as the technology race with Intel.

Q: Are AMD and Intel now seen as peers? Do you think AMD's technology is better?
A: I think we were seen as the little brother and the one who had more challenges. No question about that. But I think we are now given the respect of being a legitimate player in that market. That's very gratifying, and it sets the stage for us to do a lot more. In some sense, you can do more when the expectations on you are higher.

I must admit I think we have better (processor) architectural taste.

You asked whether we think our technology is better? I guess I would say yes. It'd be a hard question to say no to, wouldn't it?...I think we have some important technology leads, but Intel is a great innovator as well. The most important thing about our technological approach again is it is a systems-oriented approach and a customer-centric approach.

What does that mean in practice?
Intel talks a lot about their platform approach and Centrino, and so on. Give them some credit for doing that more and more. To me, it sometimes rings a little bit hollow. Many of the things still seem to have a heritage of a chip company and a dominant player who may develop a platform, but they pretty much force that platform on you whether it's the right one or not.

What sets you apart from Intel?
They have the advantage of size, and that lets them innovate. We have the advantage, in some sense, of lack of size that lets us innovate. I must admit I think we have better (processor) architectural taste.

Can you give us any examples of where you're looking next?
Look at what we are doing with our Geode line of processors, where we've got system-on-a-chip based designs. These are devices that use average power for the entire system of a watt and less. Still, they give PC-performance experiences, and run Windows XP and other operating systems. They're much slower devices than a 3GHz desktop PC—they might be 400MHz, 500MHz—but that's all the performance you need for these modern operating systems. They're not compromised devices; they're appropriate devices.

Our overall theme is x86 will matter more and more in these markets. We're not here to force that processor on people...We believe that, over time, the value of x86 will increase and you'll see us offering more and more x86 offerings—again hitting the price point, the power point, the capability point that another architecture might have offered—but with the software's compatibility (of x86).

With all this emphasis on software, does AMD have to do more of it now by itself? Is Microsoft progressing quickly enough to meet your plans?
Microsoft is doing a tremendous amount in all sorts of areas and progressing quite well and quite fast. They're also not the only ones (developing software), whether it's the Linux community or whether it's what Sun Microsystems is doing.

There is no question that AMD does more and more software work each year and has a tighter and tighter bond to the software community. I think that's a natural progression in AMD's emergence.

I think there is no question in the industry anymore that this is the right direction for 64 bits.

If you look at an Opteron-based server or a Geode-based personal media player or any of these things, AMD actually has acted, in many cases...as the general contractor and the architect who put together the whole vision of what it's going to be, gone out and worked with the other companies to do their parts, and put the story together. That in no way diminishes the value...others bring to the party. But in many of these systems, AMD has taken more than just a component approach to it. We've really thought the problem through at the system level, and that extends up to the software as well. We have people who work on the Linux operating system...We get involved with management software. We have people working on virtualization software.

How many people write software for AMD?
It's a fairly small number. We see it more as a catalyst. We're not a software company. It's an area where we have to know what is going on so we can design systems well.

How is 64 bit coming?
It's really coming fabulously, actually. We've got a complete line of 64-bit processors in mobile, in desktop and in server and workstation. Intel is on the verge, it would appear, of launching a complete line of compatible 64-bit processors.

Did Intel reverse-engineer your 64-bit technology?
We published our specification in 2001, so there is every reason to believe that they implemented from our specification.

We published our spec very early on in order to encourage people to follow us...I think there is no question in the industry anymore that this is the right direction for 64 bits. Linux is fully supported with a full set of applications. Microsoft is now on the verge of the release of their (64-bit) operating system.

Everything I've just described, we dreamed would happen. That was our best-case scenario. In some sense, the scenario has turned out better than our best-case scenario. First of all, we didn't know when we started down this path that Sun would take an approach to bring Solaris as a first-class citizen into the x86 world and to bet a major portion of their future strategy around...Opteron.

Then something that we had hoped for was to have IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun using our products in the core of their most important businesses.

You've said, "You can't move software." What are you referring to? Are you talking about reforming hardware instead?
The AMD 64 and the 64-bit extensions we did (in the Opteron and the Athlon 64 in order to extend current 32-bit x86 processors to 64 bits) were all based on the idea that the (Intel) Itanium was an ill-conceived idea. There's no technical basis for the need to change (software). We can make high-performance computers either way.

The extension of that into the future is this idea we've been talking about for the last two years or so, which we refer to as "x86 everywhere." More and more devices are becoming computers. I don't mean that everything's a PC—your refrigerator is not going to be a PC. But more and more devices are becoming digital computers with huge software stacks on them.

As these software stacks get bigger and more sophisticated and complicated, the need for the value of an underlying common language increases. That's why the x86 processor has moved so well from the desktop to the laptop to the server, and today we're making huge inroads with it into the SAN and NAS market, into the embedded market.

What needs to be done to enable this is we and the other x86 suppliers need to make more variety of processors—lower-power ones, higher-performance ones, cheaper ones.

I think that the approach that we're going to take for the consumer electronics initially...is to start offering x86-based solutions for more and more consumer applications. I don't mean jamming a PC processor into a blender. What I mean is designing an appropriate x86 processor for appropriate devices—whether those be portable media devices, home media servers (or) a set-top box—designing the processor around the constraints of power, the constraints of cost, and bringing the value of this huge software base (to each new device category).

Editor's Picks