AMD’s history has been well documented, especially given several reorganizations in the early part of this decade along with changes in senior staff and how both its market share in CPU and GPU markets is progressing. Today we have learned that one of those senior staff, the head of the CPU group Jim Keller, is to leave AMD effective September 18th (today).  Readers may remember that Jim Keller was a recent re-hire in 2012, tasked with leading AMD's CPU group and helping the company develop new core processor architectures in order to bring AMD's architecture in line the competition.

Jim Keller has worked at AMD before, most notably developing the K7 and K8 processors that formed the basis of much of AMD’s success at the turn of the century. This includes assisting in the generation of the x86-64 instruction set that would form the basis of many of the x86 based computers people used today. At other points in time Jim has also spent several years each at Apple helping design their A4 and A5 SoCs as well as at DEC on Alpha processors, giving him a wide degree of experience in CPU development that AMD has been tapping during his latest tenure there.

As a re-hire at the top of the CPU chain, Keller's latest project at AMD was to develop the next generation of high performance processors for AMD and to build a team around the concept of PC performance. This was announced as a rapid departure from the module design of Bulldozer-based cores sharing parts of a processor and towards a new base architecture called Zen. Other projects in the pipeline at AMD CPU group include ARM-based AMD processors (K12), an ARM counterpart of sorts for Zen that is set to launch later on.

As for the big question, the state of Zen, along with confirming that Keller is leaving the company today, AMD is also officially reiterating that their roadmaps are still on course, with Zen set to come to market in the latter half of 2016 and a first full preiod of revenue to be reported in 2017. Given the long (4+ year) design cycles for a modern high-performance CPU, at this point in time all of the "heavy lifting" on Zen development should be done. With only a year or so to go before launch, the rest of Keller's team at AMD will be focusing on fixing bugs and bringing products to manufacturing.

As a result while the loss of Keller is certainly a significant one for AMD, Keller's architecture work on Zen should already be complete, which is likely why we are seeing him leave at this time. And as a quick aside to give you an idea of CPU development timelines, by comparison, Jim's work on K8 was done over 3 years before K8 shipped in 2003. Consequently the biggest loss for AMD here shouldn't be Zen-related, but rather that they won't have Keller's talents to call upon for further refinements of Zen or for a post-Zen architecture.

Meanwhile leadership of the CPU architecture team in Keller's absence will be turned over to CTO Mark Papermaster, who will be leading the group as they wrap up work on Zen. AMD is calling Mark the "acting leader" of the group, so this is likely an interim posting while AMD looks to find or promote someone to lead the CPU architecture group on a permanent basis. Otherwise as we're approaching the end of the fiscal quarter, AMD is in their quiet period, so AMD is limited in what they can say at this time. I suspect we'll hear a bit more on the plan for the final year of Zen development in the company's Q3 earnings release, which will be on October 14th.

Finally, it will be interesting to see if and when Keller will pop up next in the industry. Given his history of switching jobs to work on new CPU projects and his high level of skill which has allowed him to so freely move between companies, we may yet see Keller show up on another CPU project in the future. On the other hand after having worked for AMD twice and Apple, Keller has certainly earned an early retirement. In the meantime with the launch of Zen closing in for AMD, all eyes will be on just what Keller and his team have put together for AMD's next generation CPU.

Source: AMD
Top image (from left): Mark Papermaster (CTO), Dr. Lisa Su (CEO), Simon Segars (CEO of ARM), Jim Keller

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  • Reflex - Monday, September 21, 2015 - link

    This right here. The reason Intel, and others, do this is that there is a well known bias against candidates beyond white and asian males. Knowing that this bias exists, attempting to counter for it is not itself racism or sexism. It is just the opposite.

    I am sorry a few mediocre white or asian male candidates may not meet the bar now that they have to compete with an increased number of top candidates of other ethnicities and gender. Actually, no I am not, I like working with the best of the best.
  • nils_ - Sunday, September 27, 2015 - link

    What I find especially hilarious is that all Asians are just lumped into the same category, as if that's not extremely racist. But such is the stupidity of US race relations, anything that doesn't fit into the census category is basically lumped into the same category.

    I wonder, do I get to quadruple the referral bonus is my referral is female AND hispanic?
  • Reflex - Saturday, October 3, 2015 - link

    I am not certain what your point it. Quite frankly "asians" from virtually all of Asia are very well represented. I have many colleagues from Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, China and India. There are only a few Asian countries I can honestly say are not represented well at the major tech firms I have worked at, and in those cases I would guess its more a function of population size or much lower general education levels.

    By contrast, I can total the number of black colleagues I've had in my 15 years up on one hand. And virtually all of the women I've worked with were Asian, at least on the engineering side.
  • tipoo - Friday, September 18, 2015 - link

    He helped make K8 and the left before it's launch, so it doesn't necessarily mean that. And processor designs take like half a decade now, Zen will be mostly done by now, so him leaving shouldn't throw the project into a ditch, it's just a few final steps and verification now.
  • jjj - Friday, September 18, 2015 - link

    A sale is more and more likely and in pieces. We had lots of rumors, then the split rumors , more rumors, last week they name a graphics head, today Keller leaves.... Sure maybe he was fired but given the context that seems less likely.
    If they take it private, AMD could remain as is but other than that there is nobody likely to buy the entire thing, costs too much to be worth it.
  • lilmoe - Friday, September 18, 2015 - link

    Not many want to take that "plunge", but it's been rumored (for quite a while back) that Samsung is willing. Not to mention the loads of cash it'll need for serious lack in R&D. If it does, it's going to be huge threat for Intel's and nVidia's dominance in their respective markets.

    I wouldn't be surprised if Keller is leaving AMD to work directly for the "buyer".
  • jjj - Friday, September 18, 2015 - link

    Buying the entire thing would be a bit of a waste for Samsung and Keller wouldn't have to leave to work for the buyer, him leaving means he's not going to the buyer. Samsung could use a GPU in mobile but they can do that a lot cheaper. Maybe the GPU part would be worth it for patents but the CPU part doesn't make sense.
  • lilmoe - Friday, September 18, 2015 - link

    Well it's been years since rumors started. Samsung has been anxiously looking for a loophole for x86 licensing. If buying patents or splitting AMD was an option, I'm sure we would have heard about it by now.

    It seems like AMD isn't budging, because they're simply the only option for potential buyers of "all" or "some". But if they did/do, I wouldn't be surprised if project Mongoose (Samsung's custom ARM cores) is in whole, or part, AMD's K12. Buying/licensing the architecture separately (in addition to a mobile GPU architecture) _might_ be cheaper than developing completely new custom cores.
  • Sttm - Friday, September 18, 2015 - link

    If they are sold, I think I am rooting for MS to buy them. Then MS can become like Apple and Samsung with offering their own mobile CPU offerings. I was looking forward to Windows 10 devices, but the failure of Qualcomm with the 810 has really dampened that. If MS can buy AMD and start putting out Apple level SoC's with AMD gpu tech, they'd be able to push a hardware advantage, which I feel they need as their software is lets face it inferior due to application support.
  • lilmoe - Friday, September 18, 2015 - link

    That would leave Microsoft in a very awkward position with lots of its partners (Intel and Qualcomm specifically). Microsoft is the least likely buyer. If they want Windows 10 mobile to succeed, they should make the hardware and driver stack flexible (like the desktop version) so that OEMs can do their "magic" and keep up with the feature and gimmick game.

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