By Arik Hesseldahl Promoters could call it "Silicon Smackdown." Chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) on Aug. 22 threw down the gauntlet to perennial rival Intel (INTC). AMD is taking out full-page advertisements in several major daily newspapers that offer to duel the world's largest chipmaker to see which company's chips perform the best.
The ads, which will run in The Wall Street Journal, San Jose Mercury-News, and San Francisco Chronicle, among other papers, challenge Intel to a "Dual-Core Duel." If a microprocessor chip is the central brain of a personal computer or server, then the core is where the action happens on the chip. In the endless quest for more speed and power, a chip with two cores can divide the workload more efficiently than a single-core chip and can process more data faster (see BW, 8/1/05, "Chips with Two Brains").
MOVE AND COUNTERMOVE. Both AMD and Intel raced to be the first out with a dual-core chip earlier this year. Intel announced such a version of its Intel Pentium Extreme Edition on Apr. 18, aimed at PCs, while AMD unveiled one for its Opteron 64 chip for servers and workstations on Apr. 21.
AMD has since released dual-core chips for PCs, while Intel's dual-core effort for the server and workstation market hasn't yet seen the light of day. However, Intel is expected to talk nonstop about dual- and multicore chips as it opens its annual Developer Forum in San Francisco on Aug. 23.
In a bid to overshadow some of Intel's conference chest-thumping, AMD's ads contend that its chips will outperform its rival's and that it can prove this in a public face-off. "It's time to find out which x86-based dual-core architecture best meets customer needs the old-fashioned way: a live shoot-out measuring server workloads and energy consumption," the ads read.
WHICH MEASURES? So far, AMD has tended to beat Intel on most recent industry benchmark tests. Typically conducted by third parties, these tests seek to simulate typical and sometimes atypical computing tasks and measure how long it takes a chip to finish the job. And AMD's strong showing has helped the chipmaker put its chips in servers from vendors ranging from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and IBM (IBM) to Sun Microsystems (SUNW).
Pat Patla, director of marketing for AMD's server and workstation operations, notes the choice of benchmarks in any public test will also be crucial, saying Intel likes to tout winning tests that simulate less-common computing tasks. "We're calling for the use of industry-standard benchmarks, [especially] a few that really matter, like how many Web pages you can serve," says Patla. "That's very applicable for a server running this kind of processor. In the past, [Intel has] cited benchmarks that I've had to do research on because I had never heard of them."
AMD hits the benchmark issue with a line in the ad's text that reads: "Obscure benchmarks need not apply." An Intel spokesman declined to comment on any of its rival's claims concerning the performance of its chips.
NOT SIMPLY SPEED. Intel hardly seems to be running scared. It's expected to release a dual-core version of its Xeon chips for servers -- currently code-named Paxville -- later this year. It's due to disclose more details about Paxville at the Intel Developer Forum this week. These chips had previously been seen arriving in early 2006.
Still, analyst Kevin Krewell of In-Stat/MDR in San Jose, Calif., says the competition between a dual-core Opteron and Intel's Paxville-based Xeon chips could be interesting and may well lean in AMD's favor. "If you look at certain benchmarks, it would be a reasonable competition," he says. "But it's not always about who has the faster chip." Power consumption, too, is becoming key to measuring a chip's performance -- the less power a chip uses, the cheaper a roomful of servers is to operate.
Intel is expected to show it has learned a thing or two about power consumption. While AMD's current lineup is more power-efficient than Intel's, after Paxville, Krewell says, Intel will start moving some features from its Pentium M line of chips for notebook PCs -- known for their efficiency --nto its other products, including server chips. Once that happens, AMD may not necessarily have the advantage. "AMD is making its hay while the sun is shining," he says.
SENSING AN OPENING. The ad dovetails with a renewed AMD attack on the commercial PC market, from which it has been largely locked out over the years. Despite popularity with consumers and gaming enthusiasts in particular, AMD has yet to experience anything more than marginal success in the market for PCs and notebooks sold to large corporations. Dell (DELL), the largest vendor in that market, is -- at least so far -- an Intel-only company, despite persistent rumors, often encouraged by Dell CEO Kevin Rollins, that it might add AMD to its lineup.
Patla says AMD will press its case with outfits such as Accenture (ACN) and Electronic Data Systems (EDS) -- value-added resellers and businesses that help big companies with large-scale information-technology rollouts. "If you take Dell out of the equation, there's still a significant market opportunity," Patla says.
It's not unusual for AMD to try to stir things up during the Intel Developer Forum. Last year, it announced that it had demonstrated its first dual-core chip on the same day that Intel made news with plans for WiMax chips in notebooks. And Intel's theme at this year's forum revolves around the future for multicore chips. Given this environment, AMD's challenge is cheeky, especially its parting shot: "And may the best chip win."
Arik Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York