AMD readies tablet chip, alters design methodology

Advanced Micro Devices will take a fundamentally different approach to designing chips as it tries to move away from playing second fiddle to Intel.

The company will blur the lines between CPUs and graphics processors in future chip design cycles, with both units sharing a memory pool and running common software applications, said Mark Papermaster, CTO of AMD, during a financial analyst conference speech that was webcast on Thursday.

AMD is also opening up its chips for integration of third-party intellectual property, which is the best way for the company to offer customized chips for specific customer needs, Papermaster said.

“It’s more quick, more agile and tailored to the problem they want to solve,” Papermaster said. An example is the data centre, where intellectual property in the chip can be mixed and matched with IP to help tailor chips for cloud, Web serving or high-performance tasks, Papermaster said.

The roadmap modifications address key customer priorities across form factors including ultrathin notebooks, tablets, all-in-ones, desktops and servers with a clear focus on low power, emerging markets and the Internet.

The new chip architectural approach comes as AMD rebuilds its product portfolio and restructures its business model. The company appointed new CEO Rory Read just five months ago and Papermaster took on the role of CTO in October. Executives speaking at the analyst day event being held in Sunnyvale, California, continuously hit on the need to adopt a more “agile” business model that could respond quicker to customer needs.

AMD’s current chips integrate CPUs and graphics processors based on the company’s intellectual property. The CPUs and GPUs perform different functions and run different software code — for example, antivirus software is processed on CPUs and not on GPUs. The more resource-intensive graphics applications like Adobe Flash are offloaded to GPUs, freeing up CPUs to process other tasks.

AMD’s new chip design, called HSA (heterogeneous systems architecture), will reach maturity by 2014 with 64-bit addressing, virtual memory, better internal bandwidth and software taking advantage of both processing units, Papermaster said. A chip code-named Kabini for low-power laptops due in 2013 will see HSA at work, according to an AMD slide deck.

AMD is also leading the formation of an organization to bring software development tools so coders can write applications for HSA. The company hopes to open source the tools, and more details about its progress will be shared later this year.

“The way to really bring momentum … is to bring the industry with us,” Papermaster said.

Depending on whether partners buy into HSA, the new approach would allow AMD to tackle the chip market in a fundamentally different way from Intel, which controls the IP and sells the parts, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, who was at the event.

“The sense I get here is that they’re not going to be satisfied with being a follower,” King said.

Opening up the chip to external IP has worked well in some cases, but questions remain on how effective a growth driver it will be for AMD’s chips, King said.

Though details are lacking, this is a strategic announcement intended to set the company’s direction for the future, King said.

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