Intel's top server executive recently acknowledged the disparity between his company's server processor road maps and those of arch-rival AMD, but said that Intel -- with earnings of $9.4 billion last quarter -- plans to close the gap soon with a revitalised product line.

AMD, whose loss-making earnings last quarter were a fraction of Intel's at 1.23 billion, released its first dual-core server processors two weeks ago, but Intel is not expected to follow suit until the first quarter of 2006 with its Dempsey processor. Intel's single-core Xeon chips will be well behind the performance of AMD's dual-core Opteron processors, but server customers weigh many factors when making a purchase decision, says Intel general manager Pat Gelsinger.

Users will find dual-core Opteron servers intriguing when compared with single-core Xeon servers, Gelsinger says. "There will clearly be some tyre-kickers, and maybe some losses," he says, referring to Intel customers who might switch to servers based on AMD's chips.

However, enterprise customers are generally conservative when it comes to technology changes, Gelsinger says. Users interested in servers with four or more processors currently have the option of Intel's new Truland platform, which will protect any current investments by letting customers plug dual-core Xeon chips into their current Truland servers when these chips become available next year, he says.

Things are not so rosy on the two-way server front. Intel currently does not offer a chipset for two-processor servers that will support dual-core chips and prevent customers from having to buy another server in 2006 to take advantage of dual-core performance.

The six months or so between Opteron's dual-core debut and Intel's Dempsey are probably short enough for Intel to dissuade customers from fleeing, says Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64. With the disclosure of several dual-core projects at March's Spring Intel Developer Forum, the company reassured customers wary about its future road map, he says.

But Intel still will have a difficult time competing against Opteron because of the Xeon product's reliance on a front-side bus to coordinate the exchange of information between cores in dual-core processors, Brookwood says.

Intel's chips use a pathway known as a front-side bus to connect the CPU with a system's chipset, where it can access data stored in memory chips, I/O ports or another processor core, whereas Opteron's designers connected the CPU directly to the memory chips, I/O and a second processor core with the Hypertransport interconnect technology. This design improves performance because data can travel directly from the CPU to memory or another CPU without having to pass through the chipset, Brookwood says.

AMD's dual-core Opterons will have a demonstrable performance advantage over single-core Xeons, simply because two processing engines can accomplish more than one. But the dual-core Xeon still will be at a disadvantage to a dual-core Opteron on certain applications because of Intel's bus design, he says. Intel's Truland platform uses an improved bus design, which will help close the gap for servers with four processors or more, but even Truland will fall a little short of the levels achieved by the dual-core Opteron in similar servers, he says.

Once Dempsey is released next year, application benchmarks will deliver the final verdict for customers looking for the highest levels of performance, Brookwood says. But other customers who have been purchasing Intel-based servers for years will probably be hesitant to switch, he says.

Last year Intel was plagued with project delays and cancellations, as well as manufacturing problems. Gelsinger, who shares responsibility with Abhi Talwalkar for the Digital Enterprise Group, is making sure those execution problems do not happen again, he says.

Intel also plans to be more involved with end users in upcoming months, Gelsinger says. "We've gotten far too focused on the OEM relationships. We need to focus more on the ecosystem and the end users themselves."