AMD speeds up and shrinks its quad-core

Advanced Micro Devices will today release its next generation Opteron quad-core chip, code-named Shanghai, ahead of schedule as it moves to shift attention from the ill-fated Barcelona chip to this smaller and faster device.

The new 45nm Opteron chip’s release is getting a quick endorsement from IBM, which said today that it was producing four servers with AMD’s chip for use in high-performance applications, virtualization and collaboration environments, and big databases.

Barcelona, a 65nm chip, was announced in September 2007 at a corporate bash on a former military base, the Presidio, in San Francisco. Never mind that Intel had already released a quad-core, AMD was confident it had the better chip.

But a bug was discovered in the processor and Barcelona didn’t ship in volume until April 2008. AMD had planned to release Shanghai early next year . But it’s out early, and AMD says its delivers a 35 per cent performance boost at 2.7 GHz versus Barcelona’s 2.3 GHz top-end speed. The new chip has 6MB of L3 cache versus 2MB in the earlier quad core.

AMD in particular is emphasizing how its new server chip handles virtualization. For instance, it has reduced the amount of time it takes for the CPU to shift control from one virtual machine to another by 25 per cent, “so the processor can spend more time processing the virtualized application than switching,” said Brent Kerby, a senior product manager at AMD. The chip also improves its power management, and at idle uses about 35 per cent less power than Barcelona, the company said.

AMD used a new manufacturing process in making Shanghai chip called immersion lithography. In this process, ultra purified water is injected between the lens and wafer, acting like a contact lens that improves the accuracy of the manufacturing. It’s a process that will be especially needed for 32nm-size chips.

Martin Reynolds, an analyst at Gartner, said Shanghai was a nice boost on the quad-core front that looks good against Intel’s chips. But Reynolds didn’t see the chip stealing the market. Its likely customers will be users shopping for a good ratio of price and performance in a chip.

Shanghai “keeps the light burning for the next round of product – it’s more of a maintenance product then something to try to move ahead in the market,” said Reynolds.

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