Friday, April 16, 2010

Paint AMD Black: Profits at Last!

AMD, contrary to expectations, posted a profit in the first quarter of 2010. This is remarkable. The maker of computer processing unit (CPU) and graphics processing unit (GPU) chips was not expected to show a profit until well into 2010, if ever.

In Q4 2009 AMD's rival Intel paid it $1.25 billion to settle (probably true) allegations that Intel had engaged in illegal, monopolistic practices that lowered AMD's sales earlier in the decade. Whether or not AMD was profitable in Q4 is problematic. GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principle) net income (profit) was $1.18 billion. But take away the $1.25 million from Intel, and you have a $70 million loss. On the other hand AMD claimed in had non-GAAP net income of $80 million. But to get that number they had to exclude GlobalFoundries, which is the new company holding the fabrication facilities AMD had formerly owned 100% of. Still, Q4 revenue of $1.65 billion was up an astonishing 42% from Q4 2008.

Q1 2010 had positive net income any way you look at it. Revenue was up 33% from $1.18 billion in the year-earlier quarter. But there were a number of one-time charges and benefits related to spinning off GlobalFoundries that need to be examined by investors. GAAP net income was $257 million. Most of the time companies give non-GAAP numbers because they are higher that GAAP numbers, but in this case AMD owned up that on a comparable non-GAAP basis net income was only $63 million (then again, prior guidance was for negative that figure). See my AMD Q1 2010 Analyst Conference Summary for a more detailed explanation, or the AMD 4/15/2010 earnings release for a number of reconciliation tables between GAAP and non-GAAP numbers.

Because of the cyclical buying patterns of both consumers and enterprise buyers, the first half of the year is typically slower for AMD and Intel than the second half. Even with the global semiconductor industry climbing rapidly out of the recession (or, as I prefer, the Panic of 2008), AMD was expecting to show a loss this quarter. What made the difference?

AMD has introduced some very competitive products lately. In servers, it offers chips with more cores than Intel (although Intel cores allow more threads per core, which helps in some multi-threaded software applications). In notebook computer chips it has been coming from behind, which makes it relatively easy to gain market share. In graphics chips AMD picked up a lot of market share from competitor NVIDIA these last two quarters, and with very good profit margins (there's a manufacturing capacity shortage, so no price war at present).

As we move into 2010 the most probable trajectory is fairly sweet for AMD, but of course competition with NVIDIA and Intel will remain fierce. One way to categorize servers is by number of processors; most low end servers are 1P, while 2P servers are very popular. There has been a historic price premium for 4P and up servers because of the difficulty making that many chips communicate effectively with each other. Now, at least for 4P, AMD has solved that problem. The new 6000 series 2P chips are ready for 4P. At first they will be used mostly for 2P boxes, but the incentive to move to 4P boxes, especially in virtualized server farms, will be significant. A 4P box would have 4 AMD processors with as many as 12 cores per processor, or 48 cores. Each core can easily run as a virtual machine, so for instance for Web server farms, each box would be the equivalent of 48 Web servers. The economies of scale will be quite attractive.

On the other hand, a lot of tech guys just wait for Intel, no matter how slow Intel is. So how much actual market share AMD will pick up while those guys are waiting for Intel is not predictable.

There are other new products being introduced this year, but the next big thing is Fusion, in which chips can act as both CPUs and GPUs. Look to hear more about that this coming fall.

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