NetApp has plumbed for AMD's new embedded Opteron in its new storage server.

NetApp currently uses Intel chips for much of its product line, but the company has decided to go with AMD's 64-bit processor for technical reasons, explained NetApp CEO Dan Warmenhoven. "We'll use AMD for one box," he said. "We need the 64-bit architecture and Intel couldn't get there in time. But I see no reason to say that sets a precedent for what we do next."

Warmenhoven did not provide any further details on the new server, but a company spokeswoman said that the company has no plans to ship Opteron-based servers during 2005.

Over the next two years, Network Appliance will be phasing in a new operating system for its storage servers called Data OnTap Next Generation. The software, which will use technology NetApp acquired in its 2003 purchase of Spinnaker Networks, will provide a common management interface for very large clusters of storage servers.

"Just like you can have a pool of Linux servers, we're going to give you a pool of storage," said Rod Matthews, senior director of strategy and development with NetApp.

Whatever the specifics of the forthcoming Opteron-based product, the design win will give a boost to AMD's embedded Opteron program, which the company unveiled just three months ago. "I think it's huge for AMD's credibility," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight64.

Unlike general-purpose systems, which can be configured for a wide variety of applications, embedded computers are designed to perform a limited number of pre-defined tasks.

While Intel's chip designs have focused more on the mid-range of the server market, AMD has come up with a processor that is particularly well-suited to products like storage servers, Brookwood said. "Storage applications require a combination of lots of memory, lots of memory bandwidth, and lots of I/O bandwidth," he said. "You're not doing tons of calculations in these storage systems, you're just shuttling things around."

The AMD chip's integrated memory controller, which speeds up communication between the processor and memory, and HyperTransport interconnects, which is used for communication between non-memory system components, make the processor particularly appealing for devices that need to process large amounts of data, according to the company. Intel's chips use a different design.

To date, AMD has announced only three embedded Opteron design wins. Sun has said that it will build a blade server for the telecommunications market, and hardware makers Pinnacle Data Systems and WIN Enterprises are also on board.

NetApp is the first storage vendor to publicly commit to Opteron, but it apparently will not be the last.

AMD has now signed up more than 10 storage vendors, according to David Rich, director of 64-bit embedded markets at AMD but he declined to name them.

Embedded Opteron chips are also attracting some attention in the imaging market, Rich said. "In imaging you very often have large pieces of data," he said. "You get into issues of moving the images around and working on them with multiple processors. Again, that's where we have great advantages," he said.

Opteron isn't the only non-Intel chip that NetApp has used. The company once shipped servers based on the Alpha processor, and it uses chips from Broadcom for its low-end FAS200 series products.

Warmenhoven stressed that the Opteron win did not represent a long-term switch for his company however. He said that Intel is very much in the running for future designs. "While I don't necessarily espouse reciprocity, they're a big customer of mine: Tie goes to Intel."