Skip to content

From Humble Beginnings to Hardware Giant: The Invention and Evolution of AMD

The Origins of a Semiconductor Trailblazer

Advanced Micro Devices, or AMD, has become a globally recognized name in the semiconductor and computer hardware industries. Millions of high-performance PCs, gaming consoles, graphics cards, and more contain AMD‘s innovative chip technology. However, AMD came from very humble beginnings before growing into the hardware giant it is today.

AMD was founded in Sunnyvale, California in 1969 by Jerry Sanders and seven other semiconductor industry pioneers. Before AMD, Sanders worked at semiconductor company Fairchild alongside future Intel founders Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce. This experience gave him intricate knowledge of the burgeoning computing market.

Sanders teamed up with integrated circuit designers and marketers Edwin Turney, Jack Gifford, John Carey, Sven Simonsen, Frank Botte, Ray Davis, and Jim Giles to found AMD. While difficult to credit a single "inventor", Sanders‘ vision and business prowess built the foundation for AMD‘s success.

Edwin Turney brought marketing and management expertise having served as Marketing Manager at Fairchild Semiconductor. Jack Gifford and Frank Botte designed early logic and memory chips that were AMD‘s first products. Jim Giles oversaw operations and day-to-day execution as AMD‘s first COO. And John Carey, Sven Simonsen, and Ray Davis rounded out the founding team as world-class engineers and technologists.

Developing Cutting-Edge Chip Technology

During AMD‘s early years, the company focused mainly on logic and memory chips – Gifford, Botte and Simonsen‘s designs drove initial product development. But in the 1970s, AMD made a pivotal move into the rapidly growing microprocessor market. Intel had recently invented the microprocessor – integrated circuits that functioned as a computer‘s central processing unit (CPU). AMD aimed to compete and revolutionize chip technology.

Leading AMD‘s charge into microprocessors was engineer Ray Bryant. Bryant had a vision for affordable, high-performance CPU chips accessible to the masses. His team designed AMD‘s first microprocessor from scratch – the 8-bit Am9080 released in 1975. The Am9080 powered keyboards, adding machines, traffic light controllers and more. It was a huge success, launching AMD‘s journey into advanced chip development.

Over the following decade, Bryant and AMD released much more powerful 16-bit (Am286) and 32-bit (Am386) processors. AMD also recruited brilliant engineers like David Pollock who led the Am2900 bit slice product family, pushing the envelop of integrated circuit capability in the late 1970s.

While trailing industry leader Intel, steady innovation kept AMD thriving as a major player propelling the personal computer revolution led by IBM and Apple. By 1984 about 13% of the global microprocessor market consisted of AMD chips.

Reinventing the 386 and Rivaling Intel

AMD experienced their big breakthrough in 1991 with the Am386 microprocessor. Talented engineer Derrick Meyer completely redesigned Intel‘s industry-standard 386 architecture, incorporating manufacturing and efficiency improvements allowing AMD to significantly undercut pricing. The Am386 ran at 40MHz outperforming Intel‘s chips.

Major computer manufacturer Compaq took notice, striking an AMD technology sharing deal and integrating Am386‘s into their systems. AMD‘s market share exploded from 2% to over 10% in just a few years on the strength of the Am386. AMD was now firmly established as Intel‘s main competitor.

Throughout the 1990s Meyer and his team introduced faster and cheaper next-gen processors including the Am486, Am5x86 and K5 based on an innovative DEC Alpha architecture. While the K5 proved disappointing, its successor the K6 (designed by NexGen founder Vinod Dham after AMD acquired NexGen) was a smash hit. By 1999 over 50 million PCs contained AMD‘s processors.

Partnerships also propelled AMD‘s success in the 90s – Nintendo chose AMD chip technology to power the Nintendo 64 console, a major win entering the video game hardware space. Production deals with Fujitsu, Motorola, IBM and STMicroelectronics boosted manufacturing scale. AMD rode cutting-edge chip tech straight into the 21st century.

Surviving Setbacks on the Road to Zen

The early 2000s brought fierce competition from Intel and their massively popular Pentium 4 chips. Longtime AMD Fellow Dhrystone Andrews led the development of AMD‘s answer – the groundbreaking Athlon 64. Released in 2003, Athlon 64 was the first 64-bit desktop processor, integrating cutting-edge technologies like SSE instructions and on-die memory controllers. Athlon 64 smoked the Pentium 4, winning significant acclaim even powering supercomputers at Los Alamos!

But producing such advanced processors was tremendously expensive. As Intel flooded the market with new mobile chips for the growing laptop segment, AMD struggled to match manufacturing scale and marketing dollars. Despite the technical brilliance of chips like Athlon 64, AMD sales and market share declined throughout the late 2000s.

Longtime CEO and founder Jerry Sanders retired in 2002, succeeded by Hector Ruiz. Ruiz oversaw major moves like the acquisition of graphics juggernaut ATI for $5.6 billion in 2006. This deal brought intellectual property boosting AMD‘s chip technology but also saddled the company with billions in debt right before the Global Financial Crisis.

By 2011 AMD posted their first yearly loss in decades. Swapping Ruiz with new CEO Rory Read momentarily stabilized AMD‘s faltering finances between 2011 to 2014. But transformational change was still required to become an industry leader once more.

The Brilliant Dr. Lisa Su Turns AMD Around

Facing delays across all product lines, AMD appointed then SVP Dr. Lisa Su as CEO in October 2014. An engineer by trade with decades of semiconductor experience, Dr. Su led the development of AMD‘s pivotal "Zen" microarchitecture and associated Ryzen product families.

The first Zen-based Ryzen processors hit the market in 2017, delivering elite processing power comparable to Intel chips at very affordable pricing. Building on Zen‘s momentum, Su aggressively expanded into the enterprise and datacenter spaces with massively powerful processors like the 64-core, 128-thread 2nd Gen Epyc Rome chips. Revenues soared 30% from 2017 to 2018 powered by Ryzen and Epyc success.

Under CEO Lisa Su, AMD has achieved sustained profitability along with major silicon breakthroughs. AMD stock has ballooned over 3600% since 2014 – an incredible turnaround story. Now regularly besting rivals, Dr. Su is taking AMD firmly into the future.

Key Architectural Innovations Under Lisa Su

As both CEO and electrical engineer, Dr. Su plays an intimate role guiding AMD‘s chip technology roadmap. Some key innovations developed under her leadership include:

Zen Microarchitecture

First launched in 2017, Zen delivered a 52% increase in instructions per clock versus previous AMD CPUs along with major efficiency gains. The groundbreaking chiplet-based design enabled core count scaling as seen in monster 64 core Threadrippers. Zen set the stage forAMD‘s return to high performance computing.

EPYC Datacenter Processors

The Epyc line brought enterprise-grade Zen performance to server environments. Leveraging core count, memory bandwidth and I/O innovations like 128 PCIe 4.0 lanes, Epyc Rome toppled Intel‘s 15+ year datacenter dominance. AMD now commands about 30% server CPU market share up from nearly 0% in 2017 disrupting a $20B industry.

RDNA Graphics Architecture

First introduced in 2019, RDNA powers AMD‘s current Radeon gaming graphics cards providing up to 50% higher performance per watt versus previous GCN architecture. RDNA also was designed for next-gen workloads like ray tracing. AMD GPU market share has risen back over 20% competing with Nvidia.

3D V-Cache Packaging

Announced in late 2021, 3D V-Cache leverages advanced hybrid bonding to stack 64MB of L3 memory cache vertically over the central processor. This technology boosts gaming performance by 15% in early benchmarks – a major achievement increasing chip density. 3D V-Cache showcases AMD‘s packaging innovations.

Owning the Future with Cutting-Edge Silicon

Powering AMD‘s engineering excellence is an talented team over 13,000 strong worldwide. Some technology leaders driving product achievements under CEO Dr. Su include:

Mark Papermaster – As CTO and EVP, Papermaster owns AMD‘s technical vision and semiconductor technology roadmap including breakthroughs like Zen and RDNA. He previously worked at Apple managing development of A-series mobile chips.

Forrest Norrod – Responsible for AMD‘s extremely lucrative datacenter and embedded products as SVP and GM, Forrest Norrod has helped grow Epyc server CPU sales from nothing in 2017 to over $2 billion annually today.

Darren McPhee – Driving AMD‘s gaming and desktop products to new heights is SVP Darren McPhee. Under his guidance AMD Ryzen now challenges Intel across consumer desktop, mobile and workstation segments.

Dan McNamara – Leading AMD‘s powerful Epyc server team is SVP Dan McNamara. His group is laser focused on delivering performance, core count and reliability gains to carve away Intel‘s remaining datacenter market share.

Recent semiconductor innovations from this brilliant leadership team include:

  • 5nm Zen 4 Ryzen 7000 desktop CPUs
  • 3rd Gen Epyc "Genoa" server chips featuring 96 cores and 400W TDPs
  • AI and high performance computing optimized Instinct accelerators
  • RDNA 3 graphics architectures delivering 50%+ more performance per watt

Bolstered by Dr. Su‘s visionary leadership and world-class engineering talent, AMD is positioned perfectly to define the computing landscape for decades to come. The company has clearly come an extremely long way from Sanders‘ ambitious 7-man startup back in 1969!

In fact, AMD recently surpassed 50% datacenter CPU market share dethroning Intel after 15+ straight years of dominance. With ambitious roadmaps ahead for Zen 5, 6 and 7 on leading edge TSMC process nodes, we eagerly anticipate what exciting technologies AMD might create next. One thing is certain – Sanders and the other AMD founders surely could have never imagined the silicon giant their humble company would grow into 50 years later!