The last decade has not been kind to AMD. It used to be a company that was readily comparable to Intel in almost every way, having much the same infrastructure (including chip fabs) whilst producing products that were readily comparable. Today however they’re really only competitive in the low end space, surviving mostly on revenues from the sales of both of the current generation of games consoles. Now with their market cap hovering at the $1.5 billion mark rumours are beginning to swirl about a potential takeover bid, something numerous companies could do at such a cheap price. The latest rumours point towards Microsoft and, in my humble opinion, an acquisition from them would be a mixed bag for both involved.
The rumour surfaced from an article on Fudzilla citing “industry sources” on the matter, so there’s potential that this will amount to nothing more than just a rumour. Still talks of an AMD acquisition by another company have been swirling for some time now however so the idea isn’t exactly new. Indeed AMD’s steadily declining stock price, one that has failed to recover ever since its peak shortly after it spun off Global Foundries, has made this a possibility for some time now. A buyer hasn’t been forthcoming however but let’s entertain the idea that Microsoft is interested to see where it leads us.
As Microsoft begins to expand itself further into the devices market there’s some of potential in owning the chip design process. They’re already using an AMD chip for the current generation console and, with total control over the chip design process, there’s every chance that they’d use one for a future device. There’s similar potential for the Surface however AMD has never been the greatest player in the low power space, so there’d likely need to be some innovation on their part to make that happen. Additionally there’s no real solid offering from AMD in the mobile space, ruling out their use in the Lumia line of devices. Based just on chips alone I don’t think Microsoft would go for it, especially with the x86 licensing deal that the previous article I linked to mentions.
Always of interest to any party though will be AMD’s warchest of patents, some 10,000 of them. Whilst the revenue from said patents isn’t substantial (at least I can’t find any solid figures on it, which means it isn’t much) they always have value when the lawsuits start coming down. For a company that has billions sitting in reserve those patents might well be worth AMD’s market cap, even with a hefty premium on top of it. If that’s the only value that an acquisition will offer however I can’t imagine AMD, as a company, sticking around for long afterwards unfortunately.
Of course neither company has commented on the rumour and, as of yet, there isn’t any other sources confirming this rumour. Considering the rather murky value proposition that such an acquisition offers both companies I honestly have trouble believing it myself. Still the idea of AMD getting taken over seems to come up more often than it used to so I wouldn’t put it past them courting offers from anyone and everyone that will hear them. Suffice to say AMD has been in need of a saviour for some time now, it might just not end up being Microsoft at this point.
Roll back the clock a decade or so and the competition for what kind of processor ended up in your PC was at a fever pitch with industry heavyweights Intel and AMD going blow for blow. The choice of CPU, at least for me and my enthusiast brethren, almost always came down to what was fastest but the lines were often blurry enough that brand loyalty was worth more than a few FPS here or there. For the longest time I was an AMD fan, sticking stalwartly to their CPUs which provided me with the same amount of grunt as their Intel brethren for a fraction of the cost. However over time the gap between what an AMD CPU could provide and what Intel offered was too wide to ignore, and it’s only been getting wider since then.
The rift is seen in adoption rates across all products that make use of modern CPUs with Intel dominating nearly any sector that you find them in. When Intel first retook the crown all those years ago the reasons were clear, Intel just performed well enough to justify the cost, however as time went on it seemed like AMD was willing to let that gap continue to grow. Indeed if you look at them from a pure technology basis they’re stuck about 2 generations behind where Intel is today with the vast majority of their products being produced on a 28nm process, with Intel’s latest release coming out on 14nm. Whilst they pulled a major coup in winning over all of the 3 major consoles that success has had much onflow to the rest of the business. Indeed since they’ll be producing the exact same chips for the next 5+ years for those consoles they can’t really do much with them anyway and I doubt they’d invest in a new foundry process unless Microsoft or Sony asked them nicely.
What this has translated into is a monopoly by default, one where Intel maintains it’s massive market share without having to worry about any upstarts rocking their boat. Thankfully the demands of the industry are pressure enough to keep them innovating at the rapid pace they set way back when AMD was still biting at their heels but there’s a dangerously real chance that they could just end up doing the opposite. It’s a little unfair to put the burden on AMD to keep Intel honest however it’s hard to think of another company who has the required pedigree and experience to be the major competition to their platform.
The industry is looking towards ARM as being the big competition for Intel’s x86 platform although, honestly, they’re really not in the same market. Sure nearly every phone under the sun is now powered by some variant of the ARM architecture however when it comes to consumer or enterprise compute you’d be struggling to find anything that runs on it. There is going to have to be an extremely compelling reason for everyone to want to translate to that platform and, as it stands right now, mobile and low power are the only places where it really fits. For ARM to really start eating Intel’s lunch it’d need to make some serious inroads into those spaces, something which I don’t see happening for decades at least.
There is some light in the form of Kaveri however it’s less than stellar performance when compared to Intel’s less tightly coupled solution does leave a lot to be desired. At a high level the architecture does feel like the future of all computing, well excluding radical paradigm shifts like HP’s The Machine (which is still vaporware at this point), but until it equals the performance of discreet components it’s not going anywhere fast. I get the feeling that if AMD had kept up with Intel’s die shrinks Kaveri would be looking a lot more attractive than it is currently, but who knows what it might have cost them to get to that stage.
In any other industry you’d see this kind of situation as one that was ripe for disruption however the capital intensive nature, plus an industry leader who isn’t resting on their laurels, means that there are few who can hold a candle to Intel. The net positive out of all of this is that we as consumers aren’t suffering however we’ve all seen what happens when a company remains at the top for far too long. Hopefully the numerous different sectors which Intel is currently competing in will be enough to offset their monopolistic nature in the CPU market but that doesn’t mean more competition in that space isn’t welcome.
The story of AMD’s rise to glory on the back of Intel’s failures is well known. Intel, filled with the hubris that can only come from maintaining a dominate market position as long as they had, thought that the world could be brought into the 64bit world on the back of their brand new platform: Itanium. The cost for adopting this platform was high however as it made no attempts to be backwards compatible, forcing you to revamp your entire software stack to take advantage of it (the benefits of which were highly questionable). AMD, seeing the writing on the wall, instead developed their x86-64 architecture which not only promised 64bit compatibility but even went as far as to outclass then current generation Intel processors in 32bit performance. It was then an uphill battle for Intel to play catchup with AMD but the past few years have seen Intel dominate AMD in almost every metric with the one exception of performance per dollar at the low end.
That could be set to change however with AMD announcing their new processors, dubbed Kaveri:
On the surface Kaveri doesn’t seem too different from the regular processors you’ll see on the market today, sporting an on-die graphics card alongside the core compute units. As the above picture shows however the amount of on die space dedicated to said GPU is far more than any other chip currently on the market and indeed the transistor count, which is a cool 2.1 billion, is a testament to this. After that however it starts to look more and more like a traditional quad core CPU with an integrated graphics chip, something few would get excited about, but the real power of AMD’s new Kaveri chips comes from the architectural changes that underpin this insanely complex piece of silicon.
The integration of GPUs onto CPUs has been the standard for some years now with 90% of chips being shipped with an on-die graphics processor. For all intents and purposes the distinction between them and discrete units are their location within the computer as they’re essentially identical at the functional level. There is some advantages gained due to being so close to the CPU (usually to do with latency that’s eliminated by not having to communicate over the PCIe bus) but they’re still typically inferior due to the amount of die space that can be dedicated to them. This was especially true of generations previous to the current one which weren’t much better than the integrated graphics cards that shipped with many motherboards.
Kaveri, however, brings with it something that no other CPU has managed before: a unified memory architecture.
Under the hood under every computer is a whole cornucopia of different styles of memory, each with their own specific purpose. Traditionally the GPU and CPU would each have their own discrete pieces of memory, the CPU with its own pool of RAM (which is typically what people refer to) and the GPU with similar. Integrated graphics would typically take advantage of the system RAM, reserving part a section for its own use. In Kaveri the distinction between the CPU’s and GPUs memory is gone, replaced by a unified view where either processing unit is able to access the others. This might not sound particularly impressive but it’s by far one of the biggest changes to come to computing in recent memory and AMD is undoubtedly the pioneer in this realm.
GPUs power comes from their ability to rapidly process highly parallelizable tasks, examples being things like rendering or number crunching. Traditionally however they’re constrained by how fast they can talk with the more general purpose CPU which is responsible for giving it tasks and interpreting the results. Such activities usually involve costly copy operations that flow through slow interconnects in your PC, drastically reducing the effectiveness of a GPU’s power. Kaveri CPUs on the other hand suffer from no such limitations allowing for seamless communication between the GPU and the CPU enabling them both to perform tasks and share results without the traditional overhead.
The one caveat at this point however is that software needs to be explicitly coded to take advantage of this unified architecture. AMD is working extremely hard to get low level tools to support this, meaning that programs should eventually be able to take advantage of it without much hassle, however it does mean that the Kaveri hardware is arriving long before the software will be able to take advantage of it. It’s sounding a lot like an Itanium moment here, for sure, but as long as AMD holds good to their promises of working with tools developers to take advantage of this (whilst retaining the required backwards compatibility) this has the potential to be another coup for AMD.
If the results from the commercial units are anything to go by then Kaveri looks very promising. Sure it’s not a performance powerhouse but it certainly holds its own against the competition and I’m sure once the tools catch up you’ll start to see benchmarks demonstrating the power of a unified memory architecture. That may be a year or two out from now but rest assured this is likely the future for computing and every other chip manufacturer in the world will be rushing to replicate what AMD has created here.
In the general computing game you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s 2 rivals locked in a contest for dominance. Sure there’s 2 major players, Intel and AMD, and whilst they are direct competitors with each other there’s no denying the fact that Intel is the Goliath to AMD’s David, trouncing them in almost every way possible. Of course if you’re looking to build a budget PC you really can’t go past AMD’s processors as they provide an incredible amount of value for the asking price but there’s no denying that Intel has been the reigning performance and market champion for the better part of a decade now. However the next generation of consoles have proved to be something of a coup for AMD and it could be the beginnings of a new era for the beleaguered chip company.
Both of the next generation consoles, the PlayStation 4 and XboxOne, both utilize an almost identical AMD Jaguar chip under the hood. The reasons for choosing it seem to align with Sony’s previous architectural idea for Cell (I.E. having lots of cores working in parallel rather than fewer working faster) and AMD is the king of cramming more cores into a single consumer chip. Although the reasons for going for AMD over Intel likely stem from the fact that Intel isn’t too crazy about doing custom hardware and the requirements that Sony and Microsoft had for their own versions of Jaguar could simply not be accommodated. Considering how big the console market is this would seem like something of a misstep by Intel, especially judging by the PlayStation4’s day one sales figures.
If you hadn’t heard the PlayStation 4 managed to move an incredible 1 million consoles on its first day of launch and that was limited to the USA. The Nintendo Wii by comparison took about a week to move 400,000 consoles and it even had a global launch window to beef up the sales. Whether the trend will continue or not considering that the XboxOne just got released yesterday is something we’ll have to wait to see but regardless every one of those consoles being purchased now contains in it an AMD CPU and they’re walking away with a healthy chunk of change from each one.
To put it in perspective out of every PlayStation 4 sale (and by extension every XboxOne as well) AMD is taking away a healthy $100 which means that in that one day of sales AMD generated some $100 million for itself. For a company who’s annual revenue is around the $1.5 billion mark this is a huge deal and if the XboxOne launch is even half that AMD could have seen $150 million in the space of a week. If the previous console generations were anything to go by (roughly 160 million consoles between Sony and Microsoft) AMD is looking at a revenue steam of some $1.6 billion over the next 8 years, a 13% increase to their bottom line. Whilst it’s still a far cry from the kinds of revenue that Intel sees on a monthly basis it’s a huge win for AMD and something they will hopefully be able to use to leverage themselves more in other markets.
Whilst I may have handed in my AMD fanboy badge after many deliriously happy years with my watercooled XP1800+ I still think they’re a brilliant chip company and their inclusion in both next generation consoles shows that the industry giants think the same way. The console market might not be as big as the consumer desktop space nor as lucrative as the high end server market but getting their chips onto both sides of the war is a major coup for them. Hopefully this will give AMD the push they need to start muscling in on Intel’s turf again as whilst I love their chips I love robust competition between giants a lot more.
I’ve worked with a lot of different hardware in my life, from the old days of tinkering with my Intel 80286 through to esoteric Linux systems running on DEC tin until I, like everyone else in the industry, settled on x86-64 as the defacto standard. Among the various platforms I was happy to avoid (including such lovely things as Sun SPARC) was Intel’s Itanium range as it’s architecture was so foreign from anything else it was guaranteed that whatever you were trying to do, outside of building software specifically for that platform, was doomed to failure. The only time I ever came close to seeing it being deployed was on the whim of a purchasing manager who needed guaranteed 100% uptime until they realised the size of the cheque they’d need to sign to get it.
If Intel’s original dream was to be believed then this post would be coming to you care of their processors. You see back when it was first developed everything was still stuck in the world of 32bit and the path forward wasn’t looking particularly bright. Itanium was meant to be the answer to this, with Intel’s brand name and global presence behind it we would hopefully see all applications make their migration to the latest and greatest 64bit platform. However the complete lack of any backwards compatibility with any currently developed software and applications meant adopting it was a troublesome exercise and was a death knell for any kind of consumer adoption. Seeing this AMD swooped in with their dually compatible x86-64 architecture which proceeded to spread to all the places that Itanium couldn’t, forcing Intel to adopt the standard in their consumer line of hardware.
Itanium refused to die however finding a home in the niche high end market due to its redundancy features and solid performance for optimized applications. However the number of vendors continuing to support the platform dwindled from their already low numbers with it eventually falling to HP being the only real supplier of Itanium hardware in the form of their NonStop server line. It wasn’t a bad racket for them to keep up though considering the total Itanium market was something on the order of $4 billion a year and with only 55,000 servers shipped per year you can see how much of a premium they attract). Still all the IT workers of the world have long wondered when Itanium would finally bite the dust and it seems that that day is about to come.
HP has just announced that it will be transitioning its NonStop server range from Itanium to x86 effectively putting an end to the only sales channel that Intel had for their platform. What will replace it is still up in the air but it’s safe to assume it will be another Intel chip, likely one from their older Xeon line that shares many of the features that the Itanium had without the incompatible architecture. Current Itanium hardware is likely to stick around for an almost indefinite amount of time however due to the places it has managed to find itself in, much to the dismay of system administrators everywhere.
In terms of accomplishing it’s original vision Itanium was an unabashed failure, never finding the consumer adoption that it so desired and never becoming the herald of 64bit architecture. Commercially though it was somewhat of a success thanks to its features that made it attractive to the high end market but even then it was only a small fraction of total worldwide server sales, barely enough to make it a viable platform for anything but wholly custom solutions. The writing was on the wall when Microsoft said that Windows Server 2008 was the last version to support it and now with HP bowing out the death clock for Itanium has begun ticking in earnest, even if the final death knell won’t come for the better part of a decade.
Ever since the first console was released they have always been at arms length with the greater world of computing. Initially this was just a difference in inputs as consoles were primarily games machines and thus did not require a fully fledged keyboard but over time they grew into being purpose built systems. This is something of a double edged sword as whilst a tightly controlled hardware platform allows developers to code against a set of specifications it also usually meant that every platform was unique which often meant that there was a learning curve for developers every time a new system came out. Sony was particularly guilty of this as the PlayStation 2 and 3 were both notoriously difficult to code for; the latter especially given its unique combination of linear coprocessors and giant non-linear unit.
There was no real indication that this trend was going to stop either as all of the current generation of consoles use some non-standard variant of some comparably esoteric processor. Indeed the only console in recent memory to attempt to use a more standard processor, the original Xbox, was succeeded by a PowerPC driven Xbox360 which would make you think that the current industry standard of x86 processors just weren’t suited to the console environment. Taking into account that the WiiU came out with a PowerPC CPU it seem logical that the next generation would continue this trend but it seems there’s a sea change on the horizon.
Early last year rumours started circulating that the next generation PlayStation, codenamed Orbis, was going to be sporting a x86 based processor but the next generation Xbox, Durango, was most likely going to be continuing with a PowerPC CPU. As it turns out this isn’t the case and Durango will in fact be sporting an x86 (well if you want to be pedantic its x86-64, or x64). This means that its highly likely that code built on the windows platform will be portable to Durango and makes the Xbox the launchpad for the final screen in Microsoft’s Three Screens idea. This essentially means that nearly all major gaming platforms share the same coding base which should make cross platform releases far easier than they have been.
News just in also reveals the specifications of the PlayStation 4 confirming the x86 rumours. It also brings with it some rather interesting news: AMD is looking to be the CPU/GPU manufacturer of choice for the next generation of consoles.
There’s no denying that AMD has had a rough couple years with their most recent quarter posting a net loss of $473 million. It’s not unique to them either as Intel has been dealing with sliding revenue figures as the mobile sector heats up and demand for ARM based processors, which neither of the 2 big chip manufacturer’s provide, skyrockets. Indeed Intel has stated several times that they’re shifting their strategy to try and capture that sector of the market with their most recent announcement being that they won’t be building motherboards any more. AMD seems to have lucked out in securing the CPU for the Orbis (and whilst I can’t find a definitive source it looks like their processor will be in Durango too) and the GPU for both of them which will guarantee them a steady stream of income for quite a while to come. Whether or not this will be enough to reinvigorate the chip giant remains to be seen but there’s no denying that it’s a big win for them.
The end result, I believe, will be an extremely fast maturation of the development frameworks available for the next generation of consoles thanks to their x86 base. What this means is that we’re likely to see titles making the most of the hardware much sooner than we have for other platforms thanks to their ubiquity of their underlying architecture. This will be both a blessing and a curse as whilst the first couple years will see some really impressive titles past that point there might not be a whole lot of room for optimizations. This is ignoring the GPU of course where there always seems to be better ways of doing things but it will be quickly outpaced by its newer brethren. Combine this with the availability of the SteamBox and we could see PCs making a come back as the gaming platform of choice once the consoles start showing their age.