The End of x86 Domination: AMD Is Cool With That


amdh_e_2cpThe shift to mobile computing emphasizes the split between two distinct markets for the processor vendors that make the brains of computers. There’s the consumer-facing devices, which include everything from smartphone to laptops, and the server side, which offers content to consumer devices through the cloud.

That split is a reaction to how people use their computers. I think it signals the end of the hegemony of the x86 architecture and the end of clock speed as a significant indicator of what a device can do. But I was surprised yesterday to discover that Nigel Dessau, AMD’s (s AMD) SVP and chief marketing officer, agrees. He talked about the bifurcation of the computing industry and how that’s changing the way AMD is designing its chips.

On the consumer side, the demand for graphics, which drove AMD’s purchase of ATI back in 2005, has taken the emphasis and even some of the workloads off the CPU. “It’s the balance of storage and graphics that go with a CPU in the client, and the CPU is no longer defining the experience of the user,” said Dessau. “It’s around the performance, graphics and battery life.”

On the server side, the x86 architecture doesn’t seem to be in danger of losing much ground, (despite the use of accelerator chips in high-performance computing as well as for certain specialized jobs), but the focus on power is waning. Dessau spoke of a shift happening in the way companies buy servers, where the performance isn’t a function of clock speed, but of storage and I/O capabilities. AMD obviously has something to prove against faster chips offered by its rival Intel, (s INTC), but the monolithic focus on a chip’s horsepower is ending.

“We were lazy only articulating power on GHz because it was easy, but that’s just not as important anymore,” Dessau said.

Dessau pointed to servers that are virtualized, running databases and dynamic web languages as examples of jobs that need more than just horsepower. Many of these functions are the back end of the cloud computing environments and web services that will deliver content back to the client devices. With lower power processors, and a focus on designing chips for scalable and virtualized environments, AMD is hoping with its Shangai and upcoming Istanbul processors that it can pose a credible threat to Intel’s high-power processors.


Pete Steege

Say good-bye to the GigaHerz Era and hello to the Terabyte Era. Servers(and PCs for that matter) will be more affected by their ability to serve and store content than to process data.

Storage is rising to replace the processor as the key enabling component of data center hardware. Add to that the rise of SSD, and the next few years in this space will be dynamic.

Stacey Higginbotham

Frank, I’m completely with you on the software issue, but one way to handle that problem is through accessing software through the browser using web-based applications. And no, x86 isn’t going anywhere but I do think it’s becoming less relevant. It sounds like we’ll have to agree to disagree here and see what happens.

As for GHz, yes, I know that’s issue that’s been covered for a while, but AMD is not the only chipmaker or server vendor looking at ways to optimize memory and IO on the chip, especially as it relates to web-scale applications and virtualization. Since those are becoming more common in data centers this is an issue we’ll here more about. Not all of our readers are on the cutting edge of chip design, so its worth repeating some older stuff as part of the new.


Gee, nerds can be so cruel. Fortunately, no one takes them 1/x86th as seriously as they do themselves. I hate to break it to you guys, but x86 has already hit its inflection point. Sure it’s important and likely to remain so for the near-term. But ARM9 has caught up and will surpass x86 by far. Market growth: x86 has plateaued. ARM9 exponential. The future of personal computing is ARM9.

Frank Miller

Geez Stacey, you must have something in for x86. This is the second weak story you’ve put together to justify such an assertion.

So let me get this straight, because AMD is having a hard time, and their CMO comes out with an earth shattering statement like, graphics are important for consumer facing devices, you immediately conclude that x86 dominance is weakening? I’m sorry, I don’t see the logic.

What I do see from the way you wrote this story is a couple of things. First, if this is as good as it gets from the AMD CMO, its no wonder they are in trouble. As the other commentors have pointed out, the GHz race hasn’t been relevant for several years now. And when was the last time a computer came to market without some form of graphics acceleration? AMD is bowing to the might R&D budgets that Intel has wielded to produce devices like the Atom. The whining I hear from them and Nvidia is them struggling to keep up as Intel looks in the rear view mirror of yet another form factor market, i.e. the netbook. That market grasp will only tighten as their newer SoC focused devices continue to roll out of their engineering departments.

Second, please, before you write another story about x86 going away, listen to what I’m saying. The IA and the software platform are symbiotically linked. x86 will never lose its grasp as long as Microsoft is dominant in any form factor. There’s just too much software momentum. Even Apple, with its gorgeous platform and swanky marketing had to succomb to x86 to keep going. Why? At least partly because the software/hardware link between Microsoft and Intel is so strong that the resulting evolutionary momentum is unavoidable. PowerPC just couldn’t keep up with its innovations because the lack of market (i.e. the lack of something like the Windows ecosystem), wasn’t enough to continue justifying the R&D investments in it. Its going to take a lot more than the whining of a few waning competitors to shake the grasp of x86. Please don’t try to convince me of that until you have something that’s actually real to justify it.

Screen Sleuth

Agreed sadly with last poster: Ghz became a side consideration once they passed 3 or so. Now (in consumer desktops anyway) video card and system architecture is more of a bottleneck than the CPU.


5 Questions
Where have you been for the last three years? You’re just realizing now that clock speed has become a side issue? Do you think that AMD’s 2005 bet the company purchase has anything to do with their current focus on GPU? This surprises you? Do you actually get paid to write this drivel?

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