After a period when its Opteron processor gave Intel a rare bashing in the volume server sector, AMD has struggled of late to shrug off its reputation as the bridesmaid of microprocessors. Now, however, the firm has a new plan. I met Leslie Sobon, the company's VP, product and platform marketing, to talk about the chances of offering a serious alternative to the 800-pound gorilla of the chip industry.

Sobon, who joined from Dell four years ago, said she believes that the server market is moving to a new front that affords opportunities for AMD. 

"In the Nineties, the server market was all about performance, then it was performance-per-watt when everyone realised their datacentres were getting cramped and hot, and now you see another trend emerging which is price and value," she says.

That may sound like code for 'we can't beat Intel on speed' but Sobon has a point in that the rise of scale-out architectures, featuring racks of thin servers that are clustered and virtualised, probably places less importance on raw individual system performance so long as the performance-per-watt metric is maintained to allow machines to sip at electrical power.
Sobon, a Bostonian and huge fan of the Red Sox baseball team, is admirably frank about where AMD is batting today.

"A nine per cent share in servers is pretty much what you get for showing up," she says, unwittingly paraphrasing Bruce Forsyth's 'a point for sitting there' scoring on The Generation Game. "But one good thing is that there's nothing you're protecting. You have a blank sheet of paper. It's the only good thing!"

Details for forthcoming chips are not being disclosed publicly but Sobon says a large part of AMD's formula for grabbing server share from Intel will be to move four-socket (or '4P' as she calls them) machines from the rarefied air of the top-end of the volume server space into the mainstream where two-socket boxes predominate today, and emphasise performance-per-watt.

Sobon suggests that there has thus far been an unnecessarily high price tag on four-socket servers and that has to change.

"The 4P tax has arbitrarily kept the market very small at about five per cent of units and shrinking," she says. "We're asking 2P [servers] to do an awful lot here."

Of course, Intel could swat AMD by dropping prices but that sort of pricing trick is rendered less likely to occur by the EU's judgement last year that Intel had illegally used strong-arm tactics in order to maintain its dominant market share. Sobon also reasons that AMD's architecture -- whereby Bios, drivers and memory speeds are shared across processors -- makes it easier for the company to switch pricing and at the same time provide customers with the ability to move without affecting core infrastructure.

Of course, AMD has in the past suffered an unenviable reputation for failing to get product out the door as quickly and in sufficient numbers as buyers would like. But Sobon says that issue is a thing of the past, noting that the firm's 'Instanbul' and 'Shanghai' parts hit their schedules. (AMD codenames are based on Formula One Grand Prix motor racing circuits although she jokes that she has suggested names of flowers as an alternative.)


Part Two: Look, no sticker: AMD's Leslie Sobon and Intel Inside