AMD’s plan to come back to the big leagues against Intel and Nvidia

AMD’s Mark Papermaster has had an interesting past. Before becoming AMD’s CTO and SVP, he spent 26 years at IBM, working his way into its Integration & Values Team and Technical Leadership Team – two exclusive and highly confidential workforces. Following his tenure at IBM, he went on to join Apple, Cisco Systems, before taking up position at AMD. Papermaster is a man armed with a wealth of knowledge and so, when he says that AMD is on its way back into the big leagues, ready to go toe-to-toe with Intel and Nvidia once again, you sit up and listen.

Papermaster is also the first to admit that AMD fell behind. In server-grade architecture Intel owns practically 99% of the market; Intel dominates in the high-performance CPU space; and Nvidia is absolutely killing it in the high-end graphics department. But AMD hasn’t been sitting on its laurels for the past few years, it’s been actively working towards coming back bigger than ever, and it’s within the next year that AMD will see the investment really begin to pay off.

“As you know, semiconductors aren’t like software, where you can say you’re shifting focus and within the year have a new software product out,” Papermaster explains to me as we meet to discuss the future of AMD. “We shifted our focus years ago, and it takes that long [to make a change]. The products we’re rolling out now are high-performance products – it’s a return to our roots and we’re very focused.”

“It’s a return to our roots and we’re very focused.”

But what, exactly, is the company focused upon? Well, according to Papermaster, AMD used to be 90% dependent on the PC business – today, more than half of its revenue comes from the semi-custom business. Games consoles form a large part of this, and that’s why the three key areas of AMD’s comeback strategy focus around games, “immersive platforms” and, erm, data centres.

Clearly, of the three areas that form AMD’s focus, the data centre is the least sexy area, but it’s the one with the largest potential for change. Intel – AMD’s biggest rival – holds 99% of this market, having stolen back most of the 30% share AMD once enjoyed back in its heyday. Seeing as AMD predicts that the data centre space will be worth $18bn by 2019, grabbing back that 30% or more is sure to be lucrative for AMD’s growth.

In the games space, however, AMD is already absolutely crushing it. As an industry, games is worth more than $15 billion a year – and will only continue to grow. For now, AMD dominates the home-console market, supplying chips for the Xbox One, PS4 and Wii U – with the Xbox Project Scorpio and PS4 Pro also set to use AMD chips. In the PC space, however, it needs to fight back against the ever-growing force that is Nvidia and it’s high-end graphics cards.

amd_radeon_rx_470_chipChipset of a Radeon RX 470 – Fritzchens Fritz, Flickr

It is in “immersive platforms” that AMD is ready to take its biggest leap, though. Papermaster sees the growth of VR, AR and Mixed Reality as a key space for AMD and its future. “We’ve gone from radio to TV; sound to audio-visual to interactive. But each one of these progressions engages you further… immersive computing is clearly the next way we’ll interface with computing. It isn’t just about seeing and hearing; it will involve all of your senses because you’re truly surrounded by audio, visual and – eventually – haptics.

“We’ve had the technology to create VR for years, but now it’s affordable. The breakthrough this year is not only the development of head-mounted displays, but the development of CPUs and graphics that can drive them. Several years ago, we made a decision to invest in high-end graphics and high-end computing, and we’ve come out with a set of products ready to create a great VR experience.”

It’s these products that form the lynchpin of AMD’s revival plan.

Its upcoming Zen CPU is slated to be the first high-performance chip from AMD that can compete on a par with Intel’s own architecture – benching the same, if not better than Intel’s Broadwell E Core i7. Zen also offers 40% better performance than it’s Excavator chipset using the same amount of energy. AMD’s Radeon range also brings VR-ready graphics cards to the market, with the RX 480 – which sits between Nvidia’s 1060 and 1070 cards – capable of pushing out power at a much more affordable price point. Suddenly, with these products, AMD is back in the running.

“There’s pent-up demand for competition.”

Being a competitor is exactly what AMD wants to be within these spaces. “There’s pent-up demand for competition,” explains Papermaster. “High-performance desktop and server [are areas that both] have a clear lack of competition. Both are dominated by our competitor and hungry for a competitive product – which is exactly what Zen will bring.

“We’ve committed to a very strong roadmap, and my commitment is absolutely competitive, generational improvements. When our customers come back to us once we’ve released Zen and see we’re back in the thick of the competition, making use of leapfrogging design teams, we’ll absolutely maintain a competitive pace in the industry.”

Now, after years of slumber, it looks as if AMD is finally back in with the big industry players. Papermaster sums up how AMD made such huge progressions by stating that because “AMD is a fraction of the size of Intel, it causes us to be extremely innovative in how we create products.”

But AMD isn’t done here. We already know that it plans to maintain pace with the rest of the industry, but if it wants to hit the lofty heights of high-end immersive computing, it needs to do more. Thankfully, it sounds as if the company is up to the challenge: “if you want to go from what we have today to true presence, [there are] orders of magnitude more progression that we need to do.

“That is, however, our passion; it’s what AMD engineers live to do.”

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