AMD’s Ambidexterity Is Growing – Forbes
My mother was ambidextrous, a rare quality in humans that allows the possessor to perform tasks equally well with either hand. In computers, ambidexterity refers to a system’s ability to compute equally well with different architectures. In endpoints, the relevant schemata are x86, a standard found in most PCs and available from Intel Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), and ARM, a standard based on an ARM Holdings ARM Holdings design, which is used in most smartphones and tablets. In the ARM world, ARM 64, the 64-bit version, is the latest thing. ARM 64 will allow ARM to address applications, such as general-purpose servers, that were formerly beyond its capabilities.
AMD, a client of mine, is working on processors based on both standards. The company has been headed in this direction for more than two years (taking a date from AnandTech).
Last week, AMD hosted a conference for industry analysts in Austin, Texas, to bring the community up to speed on its efforts. Of course, the company wouldn’t talk about future products in any detail, and when it did, the information was under non-disclosure. So, I can tell you that it will be smaller than a breadbox and not much else.
Nonetheless, I tried to pry more out whatever executives I could lay my hands on. I found a good one and over dinner plied him with strong drink.
Phil Rogers, a longtime AMD Fellow, diffident Brit, chief system architect, and president of the Heterogeneous Systems Architecture (HSA) Foundation, was pleased about things in a measured sort of way. Mainly, he was glad to be in control of an entire architecture, which is his job these days.
He noted that when he worked at ATI Technologies, which was acquired by AMD, he had only graphics under his wing. These days graphics, central processing, and much else in the computing complex lie on the same chip. The so-called “system-on-a-chip” (SoC) contains most if not all of the system (processor, graphics, video, image processing, audio, security, memory controller, and I/O). In a unified architecture, all these elements are “aware” of each other and balanced properly, which delivers benefits in both computing speed and power consumption. Executing a task on the right sort of engine is faster and more efficient. More-efficient power consumption translates directly to longer battery life.
Even though the head of the central processing unit (CPU) team, Jim Keller, is a formidable semiconductor operations manager who drives the actual CPU effort, Rogers enjoys the privilege of being able to communicate his architectural vision to Keller, who embodies it in his processors. Keller helped AMD best Intel once, before taking a path that led through Apple Apple and eventually back to AMD. His counterpart, Raja Koduri, with equally deep credentials, including a stint at Apple, has the parallel job on the graphics side. These two men and their teams are busy making a reality out of Rogers’s plans.
Thanks to AMD’s current hegemony in gaming consoles (wins with all three major makers: Microsoft Microsoft, Sony Sony, and Nintendo Nintendo), the company is enjoying a bit of a respite from the worst of its financial stress, but there is a question of how long this market will hold up.
Rogers asserted that the console wins, based in large part on AMD’s graphics capabilities as well as its ability to customize chips on behalf of particular customers, represent a durable asset. Even if consoles give up market share to cloud-based streaming technologies, he says, the ability to crunch visual data and pump it to a display will still be needed in the cloud.
I don’t want to work the Easter metaphor too hard, but AMD’s architecture will in effect rise up to the cloud from its current embodiment in endpoints. Banks of efficient SoCs will be needed to drive real-time gaming processing in large server farms, which will then stream game play Gaikai-style to high-mobility endpoints like phones and tablets.
Despite its current fortuitous position in consoles and a history as a gaming champion, AMD is trying to soften its image a bit.
Chief Marketing Officer Colette LaForce, late of Dell Dell, SGI, and Accenture Accenture, has put together a campaign called “If It Can Game,” which highlights how the same technology that aces gaming can be used for other things, like watching video or performing multiple computing tasks at the same time.
As part of this new campaign, AMD has moved from stark red and black imagery to creative with a friendlier set of colors (even if the characters still often wield high-tech weapons).
And that suits Rogers just fine. A drink or two in, he admitted that he was never totally comfortable with the first-person-shooter ethos and is glad to be working toward a future in which x86 and ARM 64 blocks embodied in three-dimensional silicon with ever tinier features will enable a broad set of applications.