The cat is finally out of the bag. Did AMD's (NYSE:AMD) long-anticipated Barcelona architecture prove to be a meek kitten or a roaring lion?

Quick background
In a brutal price and technology war against CPU market leader Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) over the past year-and-a-half, AMD has swooned from strong profitability to serious financial doldrums, from an undisputed performance lead to eating the dirt behind Intel's Core 2 product line, and from a seemingly surefire contender to an equally certain-looking second-place finish in a field of two.

The Athlon 64 processor line caught mighty Intel by surprise four years ago, to the point where the company had to adopt a form of the AMD-invented 64-bit instruction set in its own processors. After all, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) had already made a 64-bit Windows version based on those extensions.

It might be time for another dose of underdog comeuppance, based on the Barcelona quad-core microarchitecture. It's AMD's most ambitious release in years, and the company's future is hanging in the balance of Barcelona's success.

Sizing up the rumors
We already knew much about this product well before it ever hit the streets. It's a true quad-core solution with a specialized cache and memory management structure, hooked up to the next iteration of AMD's HyperTransport system link and seasoned with a new virtualization-friendly layer dubbed Pacifica. Intel's latest and greatest quad-cores are essentially two dual-core processors bolted together, with its own virtualization layer but a slower system bus.

What all that technobabble means is that AMD will outshine Intel's best when it comes to massively multicore systems, and should do better under memory-intensive workloads in general. That makes Barcelona an excellent choice for certain workloads, and well worth the extra cost to companies with the right needs.

More importantly, Barcelona was supposed to draw no more power than a similarly clocked dual-core Opteron, meaning higher performance for the same cost in data center power consumption and cooling. For home users, those may not be big selling points, but IT managers feel differently.

After all, the chips that were launched today are all server-class Opterons. The Phenom Barcelonas for desktop use will follow later this year, no doubt to a fresh round of marketing fanfare. For now, it's back to the data center.

AMD's strong suit right now is in multi-socket servers and blade servers -- large machines in the mold of your classic supercomputer, and either meant for massive workloads or for slicing up into a large number of virtual machines.

The company has been working with all the major virtual machine vendors to match their wishes and needs for the virtualization features, including Microsoft, VMware (NYSE:VMW), and the open-source Xen project, now owned by Citrix. I haven't seen any benchmarks on these features yet, but they will surely drop in soon. AMD's NUMA memory architecture and more coherent cross-linking of the computing cores on each chip should bring benefits in virtual machine efficiency, in theory.

Gentlemen, start your benchmarks!
Did I say "extra cost?" Surely you're used to seeing AMD relegated to the bargain bin of late, which is why pricing pressure from Intel has been so effective in hurting the smaller competitor's financial structure. Nobody wants to pay $200 for an AMD chip if there's an Intel chip with equal or better performance selling for $150, so AMD's hand has often been forced in recent history.

But now the company is pricing its processors as if they're worth more than a Core 2 Xeon. The early rumors were pretty much dead-on, and the final Barcelona products are, in fact, more expensive than Intel counterparts of similar speeds.

Judging from independent benchmarks, the Barcelona Opterons sometimes come out faster than the Xeons, sometimes slower, in raw performance terms. But on a performance-per-watt basis, these processors take the cake with ease, so it's no wonder that AMD wants to highlight the power efficiency of its new products.

The Foolish bottom line
Barcelona chips fit in the same system sockets as the previous generation of Opterons, and it's a rather trivial upgrade procedure to gain the benefits of these quad-core chips if you're used to building systems around dual-core Opterons.

That means a well-supported platform for the product, with quality system chipsets available from AMD itself and NVIDIA (NASDAQ:NVDA), which is very different from the original Opteron launch with its new socket. AMD says that its Barcelona yields are fine, so we should see a rapid uptake of the new product, then. Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), and many other system integrators have already announced their updated machines, and many more will follow.

So we have the product, we have the performance numbers, and we have the OEM platforms. Now it's up to the IT managers and CFOs of the world to give us the next data point, which is whether Barcelona looks worthy of its stiff-necked price tags. If you build it, they will come and have a look. Will they buy it? I certainly think so, and AMD's future may depend on a roaring "yes!" here.

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