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Is AMD now ready to impact the enterprise space?

Part one Serious about servers
Mon Oct 21 2002, 19:37
OVER THE YEARS, much has been written and discussed about a perceived AMD weakness - stability. Many will remember Michael Dell's famous comment about the AMD environment being "too fragile". Unfortunately for AMD, even with the product recalls that plagued Intel over the years, this perception, like a ball and chain, had unjustifiably clasped itself to the chipmaker.

Because stability is a prerequisite that has to be met before any major enterprise buyer would look at a company's products, this perception had persuaded the majority of the corporate world to not take the AMD environment seriously. This attitude is now in decline because the enterprise community is now waking up from this misplaced belief.

Part 1 of this 3-piece article will report on the following: AMD's efforts to make itself more enterprise worthy. It will expose this perceived stability weakness for what it is - another myth. What informed consumers think of AMD's technology. HP's landmark decision to launch desktop and notebook business class PCs.

AMD enhances its Assured Program
Last February, the chipmaker relaunched its AMD Assured Program, which is currently aimed at the North American commercial market. This service has just past its second birthday, having been originally launched as the AMD Assured Motherboard Program. The current program continues its motherboard focus, which is designed to help system builders identify AMD processor-based motherboards that have passed AMD's validation tests. This assures stability, scalability, longevity, and manageability. It also continues to meet the needs of IT managers and commercial customers who had desired such a program. Asus was the first AMD partner to have its VIA-based A7V266-E/AA motherboard approved for the current requirements of this program.

GamePC has reviewed Asus' nForce-based A7N266-VM/AA motherboard, which is the second Asus board to receive this stamp of approval. Other boards from other manufacturers are currently in the validation process, so the list of approved motherboards will grow.

AMD has also extended this program to include the processor and memory, which must also be approved, as part of a bundle. In other words, the board can be sold separately as an approved motherboard, or it can be sold as part of an approved bundle. The Desktop Platform Solution Kit is the name for the bundled solution. If anything goes wrong with any part of the kit, the whole lot can be sent back under one RMA. The label on the box says, "The platform solution for all markets," but AMD has said that it has no plans to make these bundles available for the consumer market, though it doesn't totally rule this out in the future.

I beg to differ
Even though I enjoyed the GamePC review, I do take issue with the author's comments about Intel having a better stability record than AMD. This is a rewriting of history. Intel's marketing machine is now so influential that people soon forget the past and gain a belief about a reality that is neither real or true.

The claim that Intel has a better stability record than AMD is another myth that can be added to the ongoing megahertz myth, and also, the recently exposed SYSmark myth. My experience, and probably that of most others, is that the majority of stability problems one comes across or has experienced are the fault of Microsoft's Windows, not the hardware. When was the last time you heard someone exclaim, "My hardware has crashed again?" Having the most stable silicon in the world is not going to help if the software that it depends on is not up to the same standard. If a motherboard is not stable it doesn't work, end of story. PC hardware has to meet a minimum stability requirement; anything beyond that is going into the realm of diminishing returns.

The real acid test to measure the stability record of a company's products is to list those products which suffered recalls because of quality issues or poor design. One can always cite compatibility issues with certain types of configurations, but this does not constitute a total product failure which necessitates a recall. Let's review the quality record of the two combatants.

Intel's failure to deliver
Going back to 1994, many will remember the public relations disaster that the original Pentium caused. Intel had the temerity to release that product, knowing it was already flawed with the floating point FDIV bug. It was in denial until public pressure forced it to act by announcing a recall. That setback put a $475 million hole in its financials. This Q&A link will put a smile on your face.

Five years had passed and the chip giant still hadn't learnt from the Pentium fiasco when Caminogate reared its ugly head. The 820 chipset, formerly code-named Camino, would go on to cause nearly two years of hell for Intel. Camino's launch was delayed from the beginning of 1999 until November of that year because of defects. When it debuted, Intel was soon forced into another humiliating recall after a million or so motherboards had been shipped. That dog's breakfast cost Intel hundreds of millions of dollars, but that wasn't the end of the issue. After the recall of the SDRAM Cape Cod (CC820) motherboards, the RDRAM Vancouver (VC820) boards, which Intel had sent out as replacements, had to be recalled as well because they didn't work when all three memory slots were populated.

After the debacles with motherboards, Intel's problems moved back to processors. AMD had won the race to 1 GHz and was supplying product in volume. Intel's OEMs were up in arms because of delays in receiving product. Intel's attempt to compete beyond the 1 GHz threshold resulted in another embarrassing recall, this time its 1.13 GHz PIII. It was months before Intel was able to supply competitive product in any volume. This link nicely summarizes the whole sorry drama.

AMD rises above the turmoil
Reviewing the past has reminded us all of a few home truths, but what about AMD's recalls? A search on "AMD recall" reveals the following: Recall may hurt Intel, but will AMD benefit? Glitch forces Intel to recall 1.13 GHz Pentium III; AMD gains ground. AMD revs up Athlon as Intel stumbles. Did Intel's speed race lead to recall? Shortages leaves Intel partners high and dry. Intel has a Monday. AMD moves further ahead of Intel with chip. Do I need to say anymore? You get the picture then.

With two processor and two motherboard recalls, which resulted in some serious explaining to do to some very dissatisfied customers, that puts Intel four to zero in front of AMD. Not a record to be proud of. Do you think Intel would have allowed its customers to forget these setbacks if AMD had been in Intel's shoes? Of course not. Intel would have made sure that they knew and would never allow them to forget it. If AMD had suffered those setbacks in the same time frame that they occurred, the chip manufacturer may have long ceased to be a trading company.

Intel's not so glorious past is a reminder of AMD's success and its superior record in delivering quality product that the market has embraced. Having read Intel's litany of failure, I'm sure Michael Dell would have had second thoughts about his careless and inaccurate comments about the AMD environment being " too fragile." History tells us that those comments should have been directed, and deservedly so, to Intel.

Personal experience
To back up history with personal experience, I have built three AMD processor-based PCs over the years (Socket-7, Slot-A, and Socket-A) which have been used extensively with minimal problems. Two of those systems have VIA platform processors, the Slot A has the AMD-750 chipset. At work, I've used a wide variety of Intel-based PCs from 386 to Pentium III. Those machines locked up from time to time, but I found they offered no better stability than the AMD systems I used at home. With that experience behind me, I would never personally pay extra to buy a new Intel-based desktop PC when an AMD solution offers better value.

The people have spoken
It is not just history and my personal experience that I call upon to demonstrate AMD's quality record and value. Informed consumers have been demonstrating their preferred choice at the ballot box.

The readership of Computer Shopper Magazine overwhelmingly voted the AMD Athlon processor the best overall product of the year for 2001. The readers of PC Magazine Germany also named the AMD Athlon XP processor " Product of the Year 2001/2002." Tom's Hardware Guide Readers' Choice Awards 2001 also demonstrated that AMD Athlon-based platforms are king. These were blacker than black days for Intel, let's see how the readership of THG cast their votes.

In the best CPU category, even with the release of Northwood (poll didn't close till Jan 25, 2002), AMD's Athlon XP took top spot with a staggering 84% of the vote. Intel's P4 could only muster a meager 12% of the ballot. Intel and the P4 clone products were no where to be seen in the best chipset section, which enabled AMD and partner products to clean sweep the category. Fortunately for Intel, the best motherboard section only had results for the manufacturer, not the board type. If this had been the case, AMD processor-based motherboards would have most likely clean sweeped that category as well, which would have heaped even more embarrassment on Intel.

Even with Intel's colossal marketing muscle, when it came down to judging the quality and value of the best PC products, the readership of Computer Shopper Magazine, PC Magazine Germany, and THG knew the real McCoy. "Intel inside" now sounds hollow and has lost the resonance it once had. Two things immediately come to mind when people in the know see the Intel logo or hear the company's jingle - cost and delivered performance. Educated consumers now equate Intel with products that are too expensive for the performance offered. AMD's value without compromise message is not only being heard and endorsed, it's being acted upon, and these reader polls add to the growing ground swell of opinion that favors AMD processor-based platforms.

AMD's success has rightly grabbed Intel's attention, it sees Athlon product awards and endorsements from all sectors of the industry, it doesn't have an answer for Athlon's value and it sees Hammer growing in the horizon, it's had to invest early in 300 mm technology because it can't compete on price. These awards and endorsements are in stark contrast to the class action lawsuit that has been filed against Intel, Gateway, and Hewlett-Packard. The disappointed plaintiffs, who had purchased Intel-based PCs, allege that these vendors misrepresented the performance of the Intel P4 processor.

HP adopts, Dell decision due soon
With all the success that AMD has been able to garner in the consumer space, it is not surprising that none of this has gone unnoticed in the business world. HP announced in August that it had chosen the AMD Athlon XP processor, with Nvidia's nForce platform processors, to power its low cost/high performance Compaq branded D315 business class PC. This is the first time that AMD has achieved a business desktop design win from one of the big three OEMs - Dell and IBM being the other two.

Earlier in April, Compaq launched its Evo N115, a new AMD powered business class notebook. This model is now available in eight configurations. And just this month, HP extended the Evo range with an additional sibling, the N1015v. This model is also available in eight configurations. It's kitted out with one of three AMD mobile Athlon XP processors (1400+, 1600+, or 1800+), ATI's Radeon IGP 320M graphics, DDR memory, and all the other essential components and options that the business user would need. Starting at just $899, this notebook wipes the floor in the value space.

These watershed achievements could be the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of an avalanche, or even the first domino to fall that could have serious repercussions on the way that Intel conducts its enterprise business.

With Dell due to make its decision on whether or not to adopt AMD's Hammer technology at the end of the year, Dell could be the second of the big three to offer AMD-based enterprise class solutions. µ

In Wednesday's second part of this analysis we'll assess Rackspace, an AMD success story, as many industry observers suggest. Part three will be delivered for your delectation on Friday. Stay tuned...

 

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