AMD is making quite a splash about the amount of traction it's getting the market, and has managed to capture 20 percent of the x86 processor market.

We spoke recently to the Texas company's commercial ISV marketing manager Margaret Lewis, whose job is to give and receive feedback from AMD's software partners, to ask how she accounted for the company's success -- and what's in store for the future.

According to Lewis, the company's seen 70 percent growth from the first quarter of 2005 to the same period this year, and claims 22 percent of the processor market, a claim that's backed by a number of analyst reports.

And AMD is no longer, nor has it been for some time, a company content to follow Intel's lead.

In the last three years, it's experienced a doubling of the number of platforms containing its Opteron processors, with a doubling again projected by the end of 2006. According to Lewis, the Opteron's market share has doubled annually since its introduction.

The reason, said Lewis, is because of AMD's focus on four key areas: performance/watt; its direct connect architecture; AMD Virtualisation (aka Pacifica) and 64-bit/multi-core technology. At the time, AMD was designing these kinds of technology into its processors, it knew it had to simply stop imitating Intel.

Clone no more

Up until the very late 1990s, AMD was, broadly speaking, a clone company. You went there to buy a chip that was, from the outside at least, identical to the equivalent Intel part. It was cheaper, and it might run a tad quicker but, broadly speaking, it wasn't much of a USP from AMD's point of view.

It was a pretty good deal in terms of dollars in the cash register but it was not scalable -- especially since the company suffered from well-publicised availability problems, and the platforms in which its products ran were not, in general, as robust as the Intel-based systems.

In particular, AMD was corralled in the low-price consumer bracket -- good for gaming and low-end PCs perhaps but not much else, was the perception.

So AMD bumped along with a market share of some five per cent of the market, battling with Intel's low-end Celeron, which the bigger company released to stem the flow of cash into AMD's pockets. To grow, things had to change.

So AMD came up with the Athlon, followed by the server-focused Opteron, a revision of the second generation Athlon. Since then AMD has managed to capture a 20 percent share of the x86 market, and has made deep inroads into the enterprise market.

The adoption of AMD chips for its servers by Intel die-hard Dell demonstrates the reputation that AMD now commands in the sensitive server market.

Forward thinking

One of the key reasons is the company's delivery of a chip that took account of the need for 64-bit computing and to husband power -- and that it was smart enough when the Opteron was being designed five years ago to recognise that need.

Its relationship with IBM helped, as its using silicon on insulator (SOI) technology, which it licenses from IBM.

SOI increases speed by up to 15 per cent and reduces the energy it takes to switch a transistor on or off by up to 30 percent, compared to CMOS-based chips. While more expensive than CMOS, it means products can either use less power for the same clock speed or the same power but a higher clock speed.

Intel has publicly eschewed the technology, according to Components in Electronics, saying that the benefits didn't outweigh the costs. The publication argues that, "it now looks as though Intel might have shot itself in the foot by not adopting SOI early".

According to Lewis, "we also have a number of knobs we can turn to increase performance - it's not just about increasing clock speed. These include the hyperthreading bandwidth, size of caches, memory bandwidth and so on."

She went on to compare AMD's embedding of the memory controller on-die with Intel's designs, which place the controller on a separate chipset, for which she claimed several advantages. First, any memory management happens not in software but in hardware at chip speed, it avoids front-side bus contention, plus it's virtualisation-aware, which reduces memory swapping when switching contexts.

She said that Intel didn't want to follow that route because it would have to forego the profit it makes out of selling chipsets. As with SOI, Intel would also presumably have to wrestle with its conscience at the notion of mimicking an AMD initiative, something that could lose the chip giant a lot of face.

Future technology

Can AMD sustain that momentum? It's a tough ask. Intel has now caught up -- with the latest server and desktop CPUs, there's wide acknowledgement that Intel's latest products now compete at least on an equal footing with AMD both from a performance and a features point of view.

Over the next few years, you can expect clock speeds to stay fairly static, with a few notable exceptions. Instead, the now-established strategy of adding cores for extra performance will continue -- both companies are promising four-core chips within the next couple of years -- as efforts continue to cut power consumption.

AMD is betting its farm on added virtualisation features too, including improved memory handling capabilities for virtual machines.

Using a tagged memory architecture, AMD's next generation Opteron, the 8xx using the Santa Rosa core that's due out within weeks, will recognise if, for instance, there are several copies of the same OS in memory. It will be able to ensure that, instead of swapping it all out when switching context, elements of the OS in use by more than one VM stay in memory for re-use.

"It makes controlling switching better, and Intel doesn't have that", said Lewis.

Other future virtualisation features due in the Opteron 8xx include support for hypervisors to allow guest OSes to run commands directly on the CPU for performance purposes. It'll also feature nested paging which helps reduce the switching costs of virtualisation by using a pointer to shadowed memory.

Lewis also cited the arrival of I/O virtualisation in 2008 with the quad-core Opteron, plus a security feature called device exclusion vector that will stop the execution of certain commands.

She pointed to the improved power consumption of the 2008 product, claiming that, at 190W, it would swallow no more electricity than the imminent dual-core part -- and slated Intel's quad-core 'Clovertown' Xeon for consuming at least one-third more.

But the best laid plans can come to nought if events intervene, as they so often do. Yet AMD has been delivering on its promises in recent years, so Intel has its work cut out. We will be the winners, as competition drives innovation forward.