Kudos to Microsoft for Dual-Core Chip Plans

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2004-10-20

Kudos to Microsoft for Dual-Core Chip Plans

Its a clear win for customers that Microsoft has decided to maintain the status quo with its per-processor software licensing model after dual-core and multicore processor hardware becomes available in coming months. Microsoft announced on Tuesday that the company wont consider dual-core, four-core, eight-core or whatever-core as individual processors, but rather that such technology will be treated, from a licensing perspective, as one processor, no matter how many cores you carve into a chip.

Thats relevant to SQL Server, as well as to BizTalk Server and other Windows Server System products. Licensing experts and at least one SQL Server customer were gloating at the news, given that its going to be much cheaper to run SQL Server on souped-up servers than it will be to run Oracle or IBM databases.

Microsoft is releasing previews of SQL Server 2005 prior to the next beta, which is due out in the first quarter of next year. Read more here.

"I can pay additional money for a better processor, but that wont affect my SQL Server licensing fees," said Jamie Baxter, a senior technology consultant for Watson Wyatt, a human capital company, in San Diego. "Its a good thing."

It is a good thing, for sure, but after all, its only fair. According to AMD, actual performance gain is between 30 percent and 55 percent in a dual-core processor. Dual-core isnt a way to get twice the bang for the buck. What it is is the next evolutionary path for chip vendors to take, given that chips running at these speeds run tremendously hot and are power-greedy.

Hot chips require a lot of cooling. AMDs solution to that problem was to switch to a dual-core chip that runs at slower clock speed. The real point of the technology is to allow a performance increase without a heat increase. In other words, it doesnt scale perfectly, and nobody at this point is looking at getting double the performance of a comparable single-core processor.

The computer industry is facing an increasing power-management challenge in its chip designs, according to Intel CEO Craig Barrett. Click here to read more.

Yet companies like Oracle and IBM are perfectly comfortable with the idea of charging customers for a two-processor server when theyre in fact using dual-core processors that will only get them between 130 percent to 155 percent the performance of a one-processor setup. "For the purposes of counting the number of processors which require licensing, a multicore chip with n processor cores shall be counted as n processors," according to Oracles Licensing Unit Definitions.

Next Page: Applications like SQL Server cant see the cores.

Kudos to Microsoft for Dual-Core Chip Plans - Page 2

Oracles vice president of global pricing and licensing strategy, Jacqueline Woods, is reportedly looking at licensing options, but Oracle didnt return calls by the time this column was published. Neither did IBM, which reportedly also considers dual-core processors as two processors.

The stubborn adherence of IBM and Oracle to this view throws a roadblock in front of their customers adoption of cutting-edge technology. "It strikes me that treating dual-core processors as additional processors for licensing purposes is almost a case of the software industry taxing the hardware industry," noted Paul DeGroot, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, in Kirkland, Wash.

As it is, DeGroot pointed out to me, an application like SQL Server isnt very easily capable of distinguishing between a processors cores. Until its possible to virtualize a single core, customers are basically helpless. The technology isnt intended, at this point, to give customers the ability to run multiple instances of a database on separate cores. The day that multiple cores can achieve either that or virtualization, in which a dual-core processor is segmented so that an application only sees a single core, will be the time when its perhaps fair to regard dual-core as multiple-processor.

Meanwhile, DeGroot and others believe that theres a good possibility that in coming years all chips will be multicore. Customers wont be able to buy a server without dual-core. If at that point applications are still blind to which core is being used at any given time, vendors will simply have no right to point to processors and say, "Ah-ha! Double the database, double the bill," as they now are declaring.

Analysts are mixed on the dual-core transition outlook. Click here to read more.

Microsoft grabbed the competitive edge with its announcement, but its all theoretical at this point, as dual-core isnt expected from AMD or Intel until next year. Nobodys using it, so licensing concerns are hypothetical. Whats of greater concern are licensing conundrums being faced in the here and now, with technology thats already arrived, such as grid and partitioning. With grid, for example, shared server resources mean we dont have a clue as to which processors are being used at any given time. Measuring on a CPU usage basis, as is Oracles scheme, just wont cut it with the companys 10g technology.

When the company first rolled 10g out last fall, Oracles Woods said there were no plans to alter that scheme. IDC analyst Carl Olofson said at the time that Oracle would have to change that attitude with clusters. "If you think of this in terms of a cluster which is of variable size, at certain times of the year [when enterprises do end-of-quarter number-crunching, for example], lets say I want to add two more servers," Olofson said. "Thats eight more processors. I go from 16 to 24 processors total. Do I need a perpetual-use license for 24, even though I only use [the extra eight] one month per year? Customers are going to expect that if the configuration will be flexible, then the licensing should be as well. The way it stands now, youd have to license for the high-water mark."

Next Page: Vendors fear lost revenues from usage models.

Kudos to Microsoft for Dual-Core Chip Plans - Page 3

The problem comes down to the old utility computing issues of how to measure usage once you cut yourself off from tangible commodities like processors. "When youre running in a big grid environment [for example], you dont have the physical resources that say, I consumed four processors or whatever," said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst at Illuminata, in Nashua, N.H. "Theres nothing physical and simple to point to: I used one-twentieth of a processor for 14 nanoseconds. Its not a simple way of talking about what resources youve used."

Of course, were vendors to switch to a usage model, it wouldnt be pretty for their revenues, at least for the short term. As it now stands, companies like IBM get paid whether a customer uses a license or not. Once such vendors move to a consumption usage model, all bets are off as far as what revenues will flow into their tills. "They cant plan effectively," noted Julie Giera, an analyst at Forrester, in Cambridge, Mass. "They dont know what usage levels will be. It gets hard for vendors to budget. They get paid now, no matter how often it gets used."

The upshot: Microsoft deserves kudos for eschewing the unfair hardware tax that other vendors have no problem levying. But as far as long-term solutions go, they and other vendors still need to unleash themselves from the need to touch all that physical evidence of what their customers are up to—lest they send database customers straight into the arms of no-fuss, no-muss competitors.

Whats that mean? Three words: open-source databases.

Editors Note: This story was updated to specify that dual-core technology specifically from AMD or Intel has not yet materialized.

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