AMD pivots back to high-performance computing in next-gen Zen CPU core

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AMD’s next generation Zen core will offer an amazing 40-percent performance improvement as the company seeks to fight its way back into high-performance servers and PCs, the company said Wednesday during its briefing to financial analysts in New York.

"We are reinvesting in the high end desktop with the Zen core. High performance and compute in desktop makes a big difference," said AMD CEO Lisa Su.

The news of the ailing company’s pivot back to high-performance computing came as AMD also said it was going to scuttle its Project Skybridge, which it was focused on last year. Project Skybridge would have enabled pin-compatible x86 CPUs and high-performance 64-bit ARM chips. But it turns out that customers didn’t care about socket-compatible ARM and x86 parts, Su said.

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AMD outlines its great silicon hope: Zen

Su also announced that AMD would not make technology investments in the very low end and would essentially not make chips for Internet of Things, and low-end tablets and smartphones. Instead, Su said, AMD’s focus would be on gaming, immersive platforms and the data center.

Why this matters: AMD made its mark by competing directly with Intel's high-end PC and server parts, but in recent years it had all but ceded the high-end and data-center markets to Intel. AMD believes Zen will put it back into a competitive footing with its arch-nemesis.

Zen CPU breaks from the past

Zen is a completely new high-performance core that breaks heavily from AMD's previous CPU designs. Mark Papermaster, AMD’s Chief Technology Officer, said Zen will support simultaneous multi-threading (SMT) and a new high-bandwidth, low-latency cache system. 

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AMD outlines its previous victories as it focuses on future wins.

AMD has previously pursued a CMT (Cluster-based Multi-Threading) approach in its CPUs to improve performance, but that has only seen the company fall further behind Intel. Intel has successfully featured a variant of SMT called Hyper-Threading since the Pentium 4 days.

Zen will usher in a new socket called AM4 and support DDR4 for main memory as well, the company said. Although DDR4 today is used mostly on high-end systems running Intel CPUs, it should far more common by the time Zen-based CPUs launch next year. Intel is also expected to release a more consumer-focused chip with DDR4 memory support, codenamed Skylake, this year.

Papermaster didn't detail where the chip would be made, but he did say it would use a high efficiency FinFET design. That points to AMD's spun-off former fab, Global Foundries, which last year announced it had licensed FinFET technology from Samsung for 14nm process parts.

AMD said part of its strategy forward toward high-performance parts won't pin everything on just the first Zen part. Papermaster said it has parallel teams, and one is already working on a "Zen+" part.

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ARM isn't totally dead to AMD. The company said it will ship K12.

Until Zen ships, AMD will have to survive on sales of its CPUs using the Excavator cores. Su said the good news is the newest Excavator-based chips will also offer sizable performance dividends—not on the x86 compute side, but on graphics side, where Su said to expect a 40-percent improvement.

APUs using the new core will also be the first to feature built-in HEVC decoding in hardware support. Also called H.265, HEVC is being used to encode 4K video streams and is very hardware-intensive even on high-performance CPUs. Su said AMD mobile parts with HEVC will offer a 40-percent battery improvement when watching HEVC video streams over a CPU without the support.

ARM is dead; long live ARM

Although AMD has scuttled Project Skybridge, that doesn't mean ARM is dead to it. The company said intends to continue its K12 initiative. The availability of the part is a long ways off though, with the ARM part not shipping until at least 2017. That makes it clear Zen is the priority for the company. 

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