It's about time. After a hiatus from its role as a viable alternative to Intel for workstation-class CPUs, AMD is back. Instead of its traditional server/workstation focused Opteron line, this time the company is — quite wisely — choosing to target the market with a combination CPU/GPU part, what AMD refers to as an Accelerated Processing Unit, or APU.
New to the market are two, professional-caliber versions of its recent "Trinity" part, workstation-branded as the FirePro A300 and A4320. And while having two such parts represents a drop in the workstation bucket, as compared to Intel's position, any new competition should only help CAD professionals find better products — or at least better deals on those products — in the future.
A New Strategy
While AMD has never given up plying its professional-brand FirePro GPUs in workstations, the same can't be said for professional-brand CPUs. After a promising start and a firm foothold in the market, AMD's CPUs are today, for all intents and purposes, absent in workstation platforms.
The company's Opteron processor began making significant inroads into workstation platforms back in the mid-2000s. With Intel's offerings at that time looking comparatively poor, Opteron steadily picked up workstation OEMs, but the end of 2003 having all major suppliers in tow with the exception of Dell. That increased OEM presence translated directly to increased market share, up to 4% of the overall market in mid-2006, and to a more 10% of dual-socket workstations shipped.
Then came the steady, inexorable decline, which by the end of 2011 left Opteron without any major OEM on board and virtually no market share. Truth be told, it wasn't like AMD was ignoring the workstation CPU market out of ignorance or incompetence. Rather, it was a case of triage. The company knows full well it doesn't have the wherewithal of its chief rival, Intel, and accordingly it's always had to be careful about which markets it targets and which it doesn't.
And that begs a question: why now does AMD think it should invest its time and money marketing CPUs for workstations, when it didn't before? It's not like Intel's CPUs are struggling like they were back in 2005. Heck, more than ever, AMD is looking for arenas to sell CPUs that don't directly compete with Intel. No, AMD's renewed interest in workstation CPUs has more to do with its competitive positioning in GPUs than CPUs.
Ever since the CPU duo began building and marketing combination, all-in-one CPU+GPU parts (first with Intel's Westmere in 2010, followed by AMD's first Fusion parts), a unique opportunity fell into the AMD lap. As we've been pointing out for some time now, AMD now finds itself in the rare position where it can make a compelling, competitive case over both its chief rivals, Intel and Nvidia. Intel's reputation for performance graphics has been poor, and despite the company's largely successful attempt to boost its graphics profile (with 2011's Sandy Bridge and 2012's Ivy Bridge), AMD still owns the undeniable edge over Intel in graphics. Nvidia, meanwhile, which could argue graphics supremacy, doesn't have x86 technology, making it impossible to compete in the new CPU+GPU segment.
Pitching an ISV-certified, professional-caliber version of Trinity to workstation OEMs can be convincing, especially given which end of the market that part could play. The dominant and still fastest growing segment of the workstation markets is the Entry class, particularly the low end of that class … precisely where the cost-effectiveness of the integrated part can appeal. The capabilities of parts like Trinity and GPU-integrated Ivy Bridge aren't record-breaking, but they're too good for workstation-shipping CAD professionals too ignore … especially those on tight budgets.
And given Intel virtually owns the market, OEMs like Dell and HP ought to welcome an enthusiastic re-entry by AMD. After all, no business wants to be beholden to one supplier, even if it's a supplier of essentially infinite volume, like Intel.
What Does It Mean for CAD Professionals?
So after doing some comparison shopping, will you end up with a workstation with neither Intel nor Nvidia inside? Maybe, maybe not. But either way, you'll be much more likely to get the machine you want at a lower price, regardless of whose brand is on it. Because while Intel's been doing an impressive job as of late delivering the type of hardware professionals demand, any competition is welcome competition. And that not only benefits OEMs like HP and Dell, it should only help when it comes to keeping down IT costs for CAD.