Into The 7nm Era: An Interview With AMD CEO Dr. Lisa Su

Radeon VII, The Trade War, Supercomputing

Tom’s Hardware: AMD has a diverse line of mid- to high-end discrete graphics cards with the Polaris and Vega designs, and you’ve found a lot of success there. Is becoming more competitive in the ultra-high-end space also a focus moving forward, or are you going to continue focusing on those segments?

Lisa Su: We love the graphics market, it is certainly a very competitive market and we believe that you have to compete across the stack, including the ultra-high-end. We recently launched the RX 590, which many have called the best 1080p gaming card. We’re very proud of that, I think that’s a large market for discrete graphics. But I would say that there are a number of our enthusiast fans who would like to see a high-end graphics refresh from AMD, and you will see that in 2019.

Tom’s Hardware: AMD transitioned down to the 12nm node with Polaris but chose to forgo the 12nm process for the Radeon VII, instead moving directly to 7nm. Can you expand on the rationale behind that decision?

Lisa Su: When we look at the portfolio and the opportunity, data center graphics has been a large growth opportunity when you’re looking at things like cloud-based virtualization and cloud gaming, as well as machine learning and AI opportunities. We saw the opportunity to do a large leap in the Vega architecture by taking it to 7nm, and we chose to do that. I think the Mi60 product family that we launched in the fourth quarter has gotten a lot of interest, and we think that is a great opportunity for us to participate in that space.

Tom’s Hardware: How do you think ray tracing, in particular, fits into the future of GPUs, and are you working to address that type of rendering with specific optimizations for Radeon VII?

Lisa Su: I think that ray tracing is an important capability and we view that as important. We are continuing to work on ray tracing both on the hardware side and the software side, and you’ll hear more about our plans as we go through the year.

Tom’s Hardware: Can you tell us the implications of Intel entering the dedicated graphics market, and can you expand on how AMD can step up to the challenge in consumer discrete graphics, just like it did in processors?

Lisa Su: The way I look at it is, we’re very unique in the sense that we have high-performance CPUs and high-performance GPUs for both data center and consumer capabilities, and we like that position. The fact that there are other entrants into the space says a little about how important it is to have access to both high-performance CPUs and GPUs.

Our strategy is certainly to be very aggressive on both, in terms of architecture. Many of the things that we talk about on the CPU side also apply to the GPU side. And then I think we also have the opportunity to optimize both CPU and GPU together. I think that in some of these larger systems that can be quite valuable. We like our technology position and we feel good about where the markets are going. As I said earlier, this is about doubling down on what we’re good at, which is designing architectures.

Tom’s Hardware: Last year you did a partnership with Intel to do their CPU with your graphics with Kaby Lake-G. How do you feel about that, and is that the kind of thing we might see again?

Lisa Su: We have a history of partnering very well across the ecosystem, and in that particular case it was a partnership where we were building a custom GPU that would fit together with one of Intel’s products. I think it went well, from the products that are out there and the form factors that are out there, sort of the high-end ultrathins. I think the product went well. We’ll always look at what are the right opportunities to partner and what are the opportunities to get our technology into as many places as possible.

Tom’s Hardware: Speaking of your technology expanding into multiple areas, we often look to the supercomputing market to detect new trends. At the Supercomputer conference this year, uptake for the EPYC Rome processors seems more pronounced than the Naples generation. How strategically important is it for AMD to execute well in that field?

Lisa Su: I think you said it, Paul. High-performance computing and the supercomputing market often leads in some of the key technologies and we’re very pleased with the progress that we’ve made. I think it says a little bit about the architecture, and that we’ve made some good choices in the architecture. No question that 7nm is very beneficial in the data center market. We get double the performance of the previous generation just by the fact that we can more cores in that same area. We get a lot of power benefits, we have a lot of floating point benefit because of some of the choices that we’ve made in the architecture. I think those are the reasons that you are seeing some good traction, and there’s a lot more to come.

Tom’s Hardware: One thing that surprised me is that Cray and the Department of Energy both announced new designs with the third-gen EPYC Milan processors, which is particularly surprising because the next-gen Rome processors are not available yet, at least at volume. Do you think these buy-ins reflect more trust from the industry?

Lisa Su: Without a doubt, in the server market, roadmap is everything. We understand that and appreciate that. My comments earlier on how we thought about this opportunity as a multi-generational roadmap opportunity. There are things that we have done in Zen 1, migration to Zen 2, and then Zen 2 migration to Zen 3, we’ve shared that confidentially with some of the top customers and partners out there, and we’ve gotten great feedback. We’re very pleased to partner with Cray and DOE on that particular project. I view it as we’ve delivered on our roadmap, and I think that has helped.

Tom’s Hardware: The US trade war with China has impacted several chipmakers for several reasons, like having key production or test facilities located in the country or having a large portion of their revenue contingent upon the Chinese market. Does the trade war present any unique challenges for AMD, and how do you plan to mitigate the impact?

Lisa Su: I would answer that in two pieces, Paul. I think that we have been able to mitigate most of the tariff issues from the standpoint that we had a very diverse supply chain. Although we do manufacture in China, we also manufacture in other geographies. I would say that it hasn’t had a material impact on AMD’s business from that standpoint. But I do think that the trade discussions do add uncertainty into the ecosystem. It’s better if things are not uncertain. We’d certainly like to see some resolution to the trade discussions and we think that would be good in general for the ecosystem.

Tom’s Hardware: Would you say that the THATIC joint venture could serve as a strategic asset to help you grapple with the challenges of the trade war?

Lisa Su: The THATIC joint venture is something that we put together in 2015. When I look at the reasons that we did that in terms of access to the Chinese market, and acceleration of our architectural deployment, I think they are all good. We continue to believe that it will be a good partnership for us.

Tom’s Hardware: Employee turnover is always a challenge for tech companies. How does AMD prepare for the loss of prominent leaders, and how does it plan to keep improving and gaining market share, particularly on the graphics side, despite them?

Lisa Su: The way I think about it, Paul, is that we are in a very dynamic market overall. So, when you look at just the opportunities that exist, we have a very very strong team, I think that team continues to get stronger. Certainly, David Wang who rejoined us and now runs all of engineering for graphics, was a very strong hire. We’ve had a number of additional folks that have joined recently from that standpoint. So, I view it as that the way we compete is to ensure that we set very aggressive roadmaps and deliver on those roadmaps, and none of that has changed.

We are putting more resources into graphics than we have in the past, and we continue to increase that each year, and that’s because graphics is a great market. It’s a growing market whether you’re talking about consumer or data center and we’ll continue to grow our capabilities in that area.