It’s not Intel, it’s ‘industry standard’

Microprocessor supplier AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) is on a mission to convince Australian government agencies not to specify Intel-based hardware for their computer systems.

It doesn’t even like the words ‘Intel or compatible’. It wants Intel not to be mentioned at all, and replaced with phrases like ‘industry standard’. Better still, it wants agencies to specify ‘Intel or AMD’.

AMD is the only other company supplying microprocessors compatible with Intel’s, but it believes it is often overlooked.

Jim Haikalis, who heads AMD’s enterprise business in Australia New Zealand, told GovernmentNews that a major part of his job talking to government agencies to persuade them to write tender documents that ensure AMD is treated equally with Intel.

“Government is a key focus AMD in Australia. It is a very large addressable market. It is taxpayer dollars so they are concerned about value for money and not overspending on technology.

“I’m here to educate the heads of large government agencies, to make sure they put us on their panel contracts, and to ensure they have the benefits of CPU (central processing unit) competition.”

AMD, like Intel, does not sell directly to end users, but it has strong relationships with hardware vendors like HP and Dell which do.

“The issue in the past with many agencies has been that they have specified ‘Intel or equivalent’. That gives us a foot in the door, but it doesn’t cut it. It means some of our suppliers are reluctant to put AMD forward.

“I’m lobbying for us to be mentioned by name. There are only two suppliers in the market, and if government is not specifying AMD they are missing a treat.”

To understand the context of AMD’s mission and its rivalry with Intel, it is necessary to look at the history of the two companies.

Intel invented the microprocessor, with the 4004 in 1971. A successor to the 4044, the 8086, was chosen by IBM to power its first IBM PC in 1981, and since that date the so-called x86 architecture has dominated the industry.

At first it was just PCs, with all ‘IBM compatible’ microcomputers powered by the Intel family of microprocessors. There were many other microprocessor architectures, but after initial successes most of these faded as Moore’s Law ensured Intel processors more and more powerful, and economies of scale kept prices low.

Today the x86 family processors power the great majority of the world’s computers, and not just at the desktop level. Most large servers also use x86.

But Intel is not the only company manufacturing microprocessors using the architecture it invented. Since almost the day it started, Intel has been shadowed by AMD.

The two companies have a curious relationship. When IBM released the PC, it insisted on a ‘second source’ manufacturer from x86 chip. Many other PC supplies, and the US Government, have also long had a second source policy, essentially mandating that Intel ensure the existence of a rival.

This even extends to sharing technical information and product plans. This has enabled AMD to continue to provide an alternative to Intel’s microprocessors, which has had the effect of keeping the company honest ensuring competition – the very reason people have insisted upon a second source.

Today AMD is a US$5 billion company. That is less than one tenth the size of Intel, but large enough to design and produce microprocessors that in many cases outperform those of Intel.

The two companies are constantly leapfrogging each other in performance, and in recent years AMD has become the dominant player in the fast-growing graphics processor market. It also spun off ship manufacturing capabilities to a company called GlobalFoundries in 2009, allowing it to concentrate on design.

But because it is much smaller than Intel, and wedded to the Intel architecture, AMD is still regarded in many quarters as a copycat or little brother. This irks the people at AMD, and their product presentations and marketing material are full of references to ‘the competition’ and ‘our competitor’, rarely mentioning Intel by name but constantly comparing features (‘speeds and feeds’ as they often call in the industry).

Mr Haikalis says that he is starting to make an impression. “We are now being specifically named on panels. The NSW (DFSI (Department of Finance, Services and Innovation) 999 hardware contract is a good example.

“We have also been specifically mentioned in some Federal Government PC contracts.

“Even if we don’t sell a truckload of devices straightaway, it gives me the opportunity to knock on the door of major agencies to let them know that we are on the panel and they should look at our products.”

Mr Haikalis spoke to GovernmentNews at the Australian launch of a new family of AMD processors, the Ryzen Pro. Senior executives from the USA Australia’s IT press through the company’s product plans and outlined details of the latest microprocessors.

Even allowing for the usual vendor hype, it was an impressive overview. Now all the company has to do is convince people it does not operate in Intel’s shadow.


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