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How AMD is faring 2 years into its turnaround

Rob Enderle | Aug. 26, 2013
Faced with the daunting prospect of competing with Intel and ARM, new AMD CEO Rory Read followed the standard operating procedure for a successful tech company turnaround: Hire dedicated, loyal executives and build a business strategy that makes other firms depend on you. So far, so good--but can AMD keep it up?

Senior vice president and CTO Mark Papermaster followed an interesting career path. He came from Cisco and, before that, Apple and IBM. Tim Cook hired him at Apple, but Steve Jobs fired him, largely in a move to reestablish Jobs' authority and because Jobs despised the IBM career path. That said, Papermaster had a solid reputation at IBM, while his limited time at Apple likely game him consumer tech market insight, which is key for a CTO.

Finally, AMD's turnaround architect, Senior vice president and chief strategy officer Rajan Naik came from McKinsey, where the work of its mergers and acquisitions practice is nearly identical to a corporate turnaround-if not even more complex. Naik appears to have the expertise a turnaround would require.

Many of these top hires were ex-IBMers, as was Read himself. This was intentional, as it told him they could execute and be loyal to his leadership. Both characteristics are critical to the turnaround process.

Strategy: Develop x86-ARM Blend to Compete With Intel
For AMD, continuing as an ever weaker alternative to Intel, particularly when Intel was facing a potentially more powerful No. 2 in ARM, was a losing proposition. Reed and his team needed to develop and execute a strategy that would fundamentally change the company and its product set. In short, AMD, as a smaller player, had to change the rules. As things were, the market was going to be divided between Intel and ARM, leaving AMD out in the cold.

AMD had two potential paths. One was to come up with something completely different and try to build an ecosystem around it. Both Digital and Transmeta tried this and failed miserably, though, and AMD developers were already too thinly spread to take on yet another platform.

Instead, AMD created a blend of x86 and ARM to see if it could find unique synergies between the two technologies. Its first step here was the acquisition of SeaMicro, a former Intel partner working on the next generation of high-bandwidth micro-servers.

The move effectively put Intel on the defensive and allowed AMD to develop a flexible platform that could use ARM and X86 technology interchangeably, based on the performance needed or the code set being run.

With virtualization-a relatively new way to deal with different hardware architectures-AMD could create a hybrid product more flexible than either ARM or Intel could be alone. The first test will be a product code-named Kyoto, a key component of HPs new halo server program code-named Moonshot.

Finally, AMD chips will be in all three next-generation game consoles, potentially lowering development costs for both the manufacturers of those consoles and the folks who develop on them. Owning this segment can be powerful. Plus, given that Microsoft's game platform is connected solidly to Windows and that Redmond is exploring both ARM-based servers and tablets, this could give AMD a much stronger strategic position with Microsoft.

 

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