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With the launch of “Shanghai”, AMD has revamped their Opteron product line to do battle with Intel’s Xeon in the multi-cpu server space. Does Intel have anything to worry about?

Server CPUs tend to be unique beasts. Sure you can build a server with a desktop CPU, but once you move into the multi-processor space, things begin to change.

Intel has dominated that multi-processor server (and workstation) market with its 45 nanometer Xeon line, especially in the lucrative and large dual processor segment.

Recognizing Intel’s success, AMD recently launched its latest Opteron CPUs, code named Shanghai, to compete with Intel in dual-processor  servers.

Intel would win hands down if winning in the dual processor race was based purely on speed. However, there are many more factors to consider when building dual-processor servers, including power usage, performance per watt, heat generated and, of course, price.

In the dual-processor server market, Intel’s 5400 series of Xeon (Harpertown) CPUs seem to be the most popular. Xeon 5400 series processors are available in several different models, ranging from the Quad Core E5405, which runs at 2Ghz and has a thermal design power (TDP) rating of 80 watts, to the X5492, which runs at 3.4Ghz and has a TDP of 150 watts.

AMD offers several models of the Opteron (45nm Shanghai) CPU for dual-processor systems, ranging from the 2376, which has a clock speed of 2.3GHz, to the 2384, which has a clock speed of 2.7GHz. All third generation Opteron (45nm Shanghai) offer a 4x512KB L2 cache, 6 MB L3 Cache and have an average CPU power of 75 watts.

Comparing the best of dual-processor servers meant pitting Intel’s 3.4Ghz X5492 Xeon against the AMD 2.7Ghz Opeteron 2384. For a direct comparison, we turned to the SPECjbb2005 benchmark, which scored the Xeon X5492 at 324,451 and the Opteron 2384 at 311,471–showing that the Intel CPU has a speed advantage, at least when it comes to synthetic testing of elements such as the JVM (Java Virtual Machine), JIT (Just-In-Time) compiler, garbage collection, threads.

AMD’s Opteron 2384 has a average retail price of about $1,050, while Intel’s X5492 Xeon retails for $1,700. That brings up an interesting point, how much Intel processor can $1,050 buy, and how would that compare with the Opteron 2384? The Intel Xeon E5450 sports a price of about a $1,000, and tones the specs down a little bit compared to the X5492. The Xeon E5450 is an 80 watt quad core 3.0Ghz CPU and uses significantly less power than the X5492 (150 watt), which translates to less heat generated and lower electric bills. The E5450 is priced close to the AMD Opteron 2384 and has comparable power ratings (80 watts for the Intel, 75 watts for the AMD).

That said, initial performance comparisons gives the edge to AMD with the Xeon E5450 offering a SPECjbb 2005 rating of
293,213, slightly behind AMD’s 311,471. Simply put the
Opteron 2384 offers about a 6 percent performance increase over the Xeon E5450.

Of course, Specjbb2005 is only one bench mark, when we switched over to PassMark to score the CPUs, we came additional ratings which mirrored the previous tests. PassMark’s Performance Test offers a “CPUMark” rating score, which focuses on testing the CPU performance– here a pair of Intel Xeon E5450 CPUs scored a CPUMark of 9025, while a pair of AMD Opteron 2384 CPUs scored a CPUmark of 9449, roughly a 5.5 percent performance advantage.

So what exactly does all of this mean for the system builder? The quick take is that despite the launch of new processors and changes in technology, little has changed in the market. It all comes down to two elements: speed vs. cost.

For system builders looking for the most bang for the buck, a dual-processor server using AMD’s 45nm Opterons is the way to go. Those looking for max performance, the Intel Xeon proves to be the top dog.

There are some further complications coming down the pike. Intel will be expanding upon the technology that makes it latest “Nehalem” CPUs impressive performers, while AMD is sure to learn a thing or two when their new Phenom II CPUs hit the streets early next year.

With the new Opterons, AMD has proved that it can play “catch-up” with Intel, and still keep the market competitive. Simply put, AMD has put the ball is in Intel’s court for the dual-processor server market. Don’t count Intel out, though, since it’s sure to mount a strong reply to the third-generation Opteron.