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Practical Magic

AMD's energy-slashing feat

AMD headquarters in Santa Clara, California
AMD

It isn’t often I have the mindspace to proactively follow up on every commitment proclaimed by the companies I cover. But I recently paused to catch up about one that has particular relevance as more companies act to address their Scope 3 emissions reductions, those generated by supply chains and customers: AMD’s bold pledge back in 2014 to improve the energy efficiency of its mobile processors — the components used in notebook computers and specialized embedded systems, such as medical imaging equipment or industrial applications — by 25 times by 2020.

Not-so-spoiler alert: The fact that I’m bringing it up should be a big hint that the company has delivered. In fact, AMD overachieved the goal, delivering a 31.7 times improvement with its new Ryzen 7 4800H processor.

In layperson’s terms, that means that the chip consumes 84 percent less energy, while taking 80 percent less compute time for certain tasks. For you and me, that means batteries last longer. For companies buying entire portfolios of devices based on these processors, they will see their electricity consumption reduced. (The specific reduction you’d see by upgrading 50,000 laptops would be 1.4 million kilowatt-hours.)

Consider this perspective from tech research analyst Bob O’Donnell, president of TECHnalysis Research: "Lower energy consumption has never been more important for the planet, and the company’s ability to meet its target while also achieving strong processor performance is a great reflection of what a market-leading, engineering-focus company they’ve become."

Indeed, when I chatted with Susan Moore, AMD’s corporate vice president for corporate responsibility and government affairs, she told me it took "a full company focus and a lot of innovation" by the AMD engineering team to make the goal happen. Note to others attempting the same sort of thing.

Although the company had pretty good visibility into what it would be able to pull off early on during the six-year period, there were plenty of questions marks, and it took unwavering support (and faith) from AMD CEO Lisa Su to keep true, Moore said. 

The Ryzen chip

Actually getting there took some very specific design changes, outlined in a blog by AMD Chief Technology Officer Mark Papermaster. Here are some of them:

  • Investments in new semiconductor manufacturing processors (specifically 7 nanometer technology)
  • Changes to the real-time power management algorithms
  • The integration of the central processor and graphics architecture into a common "system on a chip" (among other architecture changes)
  • Changes to the interconnections between the components (its proprietary approach for this is called the Infinity Fabric)

Moore said close collaboration with customers (such as the original equipment manufacturers using AMD chips for their computers) was also critical. "A large part is the ability to sit down with likeminded organizations," she noted. 

Plus, disclosure.

AMD decided to declare its progress year to year. (Here's the report card from 2018, for an idea of how it shared the information.) "That was definitely a risk, but we thought it was very important that is was something that we talk about along the way, so we did measurements every year," Moore said. 

I wish every company were that transparent.

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