New Intel, AMD Platforms Change State of x86 Computing

 
 
By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2010-03-31
 
 
 

New Intel, AMD Platforms Change State of x86 Computing


In the space of less than 48 hours, Intel and Advanced Micro Devices dramatically altered how the industry views x86 computing, offered high-end customers significant options going forward and gave OEMs powerful new computing platforms on which to innovate.

At the same time, the two chip makers continued down separate paths that to some degree will increasingly diverge from each other.

With the rollout of their four- to eight-core Xeon 7500 "Nehalem EX" processors March 30, Intel officials are looking to drive their high-end multiprocessors server chips into the stratosphere normally reserved for RISC-bases systems and mainframes.

For their part, AMD officials are still making the mainstream computing space the key target of their Opteron 6000 "Magny-Cours" processors, but are offering businesses easier and less expensive paths to migrate some of their workloads from two-socket up to four-socket servers.

During the launches of the new platforms, officials, partners and customers for both companies talked about the dramatic jump in performance, memory bandwidth and capacity, and energy efficiency with the new chips, all of which are crucial for businesses that are increasingly virtualizing their IT resources and moving rapidly toward cloud computing.

Tim Mueller, CIO for DuPont's central R&D organization, said during a launch event in Boston that with Intel's new processors, his group can do with a single four-socket system what in the past had to be done by clusters of computers. It also will enable DuPont to more quickly adopt a private cloud computing environment, where everything from data management to resource provisioning will be easier and faster.

"What Intel's done here will change forever how we do computing at DuPont," Mueller said to a standing-room audience at the Lenox Hotel.

Intel's offerings with the new Xeon 7500 platform are significant, officials said. The chips can run in servers with two to 256 sockets, offer three times the performance of the previous Xeon 7400 series and up to a terabyte of memory capacity.

In addition, Intel has added 20 new reliability features, many of which until now were usually found only on high-end RISC or mainframe systems. As for consolidation, businesses can take the workloads from 20 four-socket systems running single-core Xeon MP chips and put them onto one four-socket Xeon 7500-based system.

"[Intel officials] are now positioning around mission-critical, and the targeted workloads include virtualization, database [and] business apps including workloads migrating from Unix/RISC to Linux or Windows on x86," IDC analyst Matt Eastwood said in an e-mail sent to eWEEK.

Combined with the Xeon 5600 "Westmere EP" chips introduced two weeks ago for two-socket servers, which target some HPC (high-performance computing) workloads, Intel is aggressively pushing the Xeon family up the server stack, Eastwood said.

"So all in all, this is a big-iron migration path," he said. "This won't happen overnight, but it will happen and Intel is giving the OEMs plenty of places to innovate."

It could also impact Intel's Itanium business, according to Eastwood. During the Xeon 7500 launch, Intel officials said there was room for both the high-end Xeon and Itanium platforms, but the IDC analyst said Itanium will continue to be marginalized.

"Itanium is relegated to implementations with a high degree of OS interdependency (non-Windows and Linux)," he said.

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said that there historically has been a split between x86 and the Unix and mainframes, usually around RAS (reliability, availability and serviceability) features. However, over the past decade, that has changed somewhat, with much of HPC and supercomputing moving to x86, King said in a March 31 report. Much of that is due to what OEMs have done with their systems, and to virtualization technology from the likes of VMware and Microsoft, he said.

But Intel deserves a lot the credit as well, and the Xeon 7500 is reflective of the chip maker's innovative capabilities.

"The Xeon 7500's 3X performance boost, energy-efficiency, capacious memory and I/O features and new enterprise-class reliability features are must-haves for x86-based server customers," King wrote. "In addition, those features offer server vendors a huge, highly flexible tool chest to build highly innovative x86-based systems."

That's already begun, he said, pointing to IBM's rollout of its high-end eX5 servers earlier in March.

Memory Is an Issue for End Users


 

Memory will continue to be an issue for end users using virtualization technologies. That is a key reason why Mohawk Industries has standardized on four-socket ProLiant DL580 servers from Hewlett-Packard running quad-core Intel chips, Jevin Jensen, senior director of IS technical services, said in an e-mail to eWEEK.

"There are several hundred [virtual machines] running there," Jensen said. "We did not use blades due to I/O bottleneck. [Two-socket] servers are cheaper, but we save power, cooling, space and cabling by going with 4-sockets instead, so the total costs for Mohawk is less with the 4-socket.  We tend to run out of memory before CPU in [VMware] vSphere, so the 4-socket servers allow for greater density of memory as well."

He said he is anxious to get the Nehalem EX chip into his data center.

"We really believe that both virtualization and database servers should see a big jump in performance compared to current 4-sockets we use today," Jensen said.

At the Boston event, Gregg Wyant, CTO of Intel's internal IT unit, outlined how his group is going to incorporate the Xeon 5600 and 7500 chips into the company's IT environment.

Intel runs 95 data centers worldwide, which house about 100,000 servers, occupy 440,000 square feet, consume 28,000 kilowatts and use 18 petabytes of storage. They are also being inundated by 45 percent year-over-year compute growth and 35 percent year-over-year data storage growth, Wyant said.

Intel is on a four-year refresh cycle, and also is in the middle of a seven-year plan to move to a combined internal and external cloud environment. The new RAS capabilities, memory features, performance improvements and energy efficiency offerings will help Intel keep on track for both, Wyant said.

Intel is continuing to replace single-socket systems with fewer larger servers, he said. The chip maker replaced 18,000 of them last year.

"The best part is, I don't need to build new data centers" to handle the IT growth demands, thanks to the performance increases and consolidation capabilities, he said.

As Intel looks to move up the server stack, AMD is looking to expand what it can to in the mainstream, IDC's Eastwood said.

"AMD has always done well with performance-oriented workload ([database], HPC and [virtualization]), which resulted in a share that disproportionately skewed to [four-socket servers]," he said. "AMD is repositioning itself into the mainstream of the market where [two-socket] servers comprise about 80 percent of all x86 volumes live."

While the push for AMD is around mainstream workloads, it also involves workloads that look for inexpensive performance, Eastwood said.

"This will include some HPC and also some database and virtualization where customers aren't willing to pay a price premium for Nehalem EX," he said. "This will be particularly true in the 4P space, where Intel hopes to capture additional margin for its RAS features, but AMD hopes to both keep Intel honest on pricing and also win its share of workloads which need memory."

AMD officials said they not only wanted to give businesses two platforms for the two-socket server space-which they said makes up about 75 percent of the x86 server space-but also an easier and cheaper path to four-socket computing.

The Opteron 6000 processors can run in both two- and four-socket systems and are priced lower than Intel's Xeon 5600 and 7500 chips. There is a demand among businesses to be able to make the move to four-socket systems to deal with virtualization and such high-end workloads as databases, but without incurring the high costs that come with making such a move through Intel, according to Gina Longoria, director of product management of AMD's Server and Workstation Division.

Matt Lavallee, director of IT for MLS PIN, said he is a heavy user of Microsoft's Hyper-V virtualization technology, and that memory continues to be an issue. Lavallee currently runs primarily two-socket servers, but said that with the higher performance and the ability to reduce software licensing costs through the use of Opteron 6000-based systems, he is looking to increase his use of four-socket servers.

"The ability to scale to larger systems was important," Lavallee, who tested systems running on the Magny-Cours chips, said during an online customer roundtable after the March 29 AMD launch.


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