[Beowulf] PCPro: AMD: what went wrong?

Mark Hahn hahn at mcmaster.ca
Mon Feb 20 10:10:22 PST 2012

> mid-range Core i5s. The verdict was unanimous; our sister title
> bit-tech dubbed the FX-8150 a ?stinker?.

well, for desktops.  specFPrate scores are pretty competitive
(though sandybridge xeons are reportedly quite a bit better.)

> Light was shed on Bulldozer?s problems when ex-AMD engineer Cliff
> Maier spoke out about manufacturing issues during the earliest stages
> of design. ?Management decided there should be cross-engineering
> [between AMD and ATI], which meant we had to stop hand-crafting CPU
> designs,? he said.

I'm purely armchair when it comes to low-level chip design, but to me,
this makes it sound like there are problems with their tools.  what's 
the nature of the magic that slower/human design makes, as opposed to 
the magic-less automatic design?  is this a tooling-up issue that would
only affect the first rev of auto-designed CPUs?  does this also imply
that having humans tweak the design would make the GPU/APU chips faster,
smaller or more power-efficient?

presumably this change from semi-manual to automatic design (layout?)
was motivated by a desire to improve time-to-market.  or perhaps improve
consistency/predictability of development?  have any such improvements 
resulted?  from here, it looks like BD was a bit of a stinker and that 
the market is to some extent waiting to see whether Piledriver is the 
chip that BD should have been.  if PD had followed BD by a few months,
this discussion would have a different tone.

then again, GPUs were once claimed to have a rapid innovation cycle,
but afaikt that was a result of immaturity.  current GPU cycles are 
pretty long, seemlingly as long as, say, Intel's tick-tock.  Fermi
has been out for a long while with no significant successor.  ATI
chips seem to rev a high-order digit about once a year, but I'm not
sure I'd really call 5xxx a whole different generation than 6xxx.
(actually, 4xxx (2008) was pretty similar as well...)

> Production switched to faster automated methods, but Maier says the
> change meant AMD?s chips lost ?performance and efficiency? as crucial
> parts were designed by machines, rather than experienced engineers.

were these experienced engineers sitting on their hands during this time?

> AMD?s latest chips haven?t stoked the fires of consumers, either.
> Martin Sawyer, technical director at Chillblast, reports that ?demand
> for AMD has been quite slow?, and there?s no rush to buy Bulldozer.

well, APU demand seems OK, though not very exciting because the CPU 
cores in these chips are largely what AMD has been shipping for years.

> ?With no AMD solutions competitive with an Intel Core i5-2500K?, he
> says, ?AMD is a tough sell in the mid- and high-end market.? Another
> British PC supplier told us off-the-record that sales are partly
> propped up by die-hards who only buy AMD ?because they don?t like Intel?.

to some extent.  certainly AMD has at various times in the past been able
to claim the crown in:
 	- 64b ISA and performance
 	- memory bandwidth and/or cpu:mem balance
 	- power efficiency
 	- integrated CPU-GPU price/performance.
 	- specrate-type throughput/price efficiency

but Intel has executed remarkably well to take these away.  for instance,
although AMD's APUs are quite nice, Intel systems are power efficient 
enough that you can build a system with an add-in-card and still match
or beat the APU power envelope.  Intel seems to extract more stream-type
memory bandwidth from the same dimms.  and Intel has what seems like a 
pipeline already loaded with promising chips (SB Xeons, and presumably 
ivybridge improvements after that).  MIC seems promising, but then again
with GCN, GPUs are becoming less of an obstacle course for masochists.

from the outside, we have very little visibility into what's going on with
AMD.  they seem to be making some changes, which is good, since there have
been serious problems.  whether they're the right changes, I donno.  it's 
a little surprising to me how slowly they're moving, since being near-death
would seem to encourage urgency.  in some sense, the current state is near
market equilibrium, though: Intel has the performance lead and is clearly
charging a premium, with AMD trailing but arguably offering decent value 
with cheaper chips.  this doesn't seem like a way for AMD to grow market 
share, though.

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