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 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,, 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.

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