Part I: It's fashionable these days for vendors to boast about blade servers and clusters of thin kit, but a large, multiprocessor server revival is underway - a trend that could have a massive impact on data centers.
Swift one- and two-processor servers have stolen some of the glory once owned by SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) systems. Faster processors and tight budgets have pushed customers toward using slim kit to handle business software and scientific workloads of all shapes and sizes. You've all heard the buzz, stirred up most by Dell, that Windows and Linux two-ways have guaranteed the demise of Unix giants.
But the differences between low-end and high-end servers and blades and big boxes are about to become more blurred than Rush Limbaugh's vision after a morning OxyContin. In 2007, all of the major server chip makers - Intel, IBM and Sun Microsystems - will foist new brands of multicore processors on the market. These chips with anywhere from four to eight cores will create a type of SMP-on-a-chip - a move that turns a one-way server into an incredible workhorse.
This multicore technology isn't radical in the sense that processor cores are constantly getting faster and smaller. More horsepower in a smaller space is a trend the computing industry knows well. This progression, however, speeds up in 2007, creating a dramatic shift that could see customers rethinking their data center plans.
"This trend has always been happening, but the rate at which it happens will accelerate over the next few years," said Jason Waxman, director of multiprocessor platform marketing at Intel. "It is certainly going to be a nice jump and boost for the IT industry."
All of the major vendors agree that there will still be a place for blade servers and standard one- and two-way systems. The great variety of software jobs requires that a great variety of servers exist.
That said, the leap from the dual-core chips on the market now and arriving in 2005 to the more sophisticated multicore chips that will be available in 2007 will change the server game. With the help of software advances, customers will be able to carve up these SMPs-on-a-chip into multiple blade-like systems or run the boxes as one, large computer.
"The first thing that hits all of us, when you think about all this performance, is that a four-processor system in 2007 will deliver the type of performance that a 32-processor or 64-processor system can produce today," Waxman said.
The most immediate gain for customers from this trend is the performance they will get per square foot of data center space. Even with a significant increase in compute demand over the next three years, the average customer could expect a serious decrease in data center size.
In addition, a new breed of customers should gain access to the kind of horsepower reserved for big spenders today. These multicore processor-based systems will require loads of memory to keep the chips happy, but even with that cost, vendors expect the overall price of a decent-sized SMP to come down.
All you can eat
Looking at Intel, for example, customers should note that the company expects Itanium and Xeon chips to be at a price parity by 2007. Intel's Itanium line is also ahead of the Xeon line in multicore technology.* This means that current Xeon customers could step up to higher-performing Itanium kit without having a sticker shock spasm.
Sun has a similar story but adds its own unique twist.
Sun recently turned to Fujitsu for SPARC help, signing on to use the SPARC64 processor instead of UltraSPARC from 2006 on. It's Fujitsu's product that will more or less go head-to-head against Intel's Tukwila version of Itanium and IBM's Power6 processor in 2007. All of these vendors are a bit cagey on exactly how many cores their chips will have at that time, but the best bets point to four cores each.
With "traditional" processor costs offloaded, Sun is looking to help customers out with more aggressive multicore designs in the form of its Niagara and Rock processors. The Niagara chips are due in early 2006 with 8 processor cores each, the Rock products should arrive by 2007 with fewer but more powerful cores. In both cases, Sun plans to throw lots of cheaper, slower processors at software instead of a more expensive, faster processor along the lines of SPARC64.
Sun expects the Niagara and Rock processors to outperform its current UltraSPARC III chips by 15x and 30x, respectively. These gains, however, mostly come with multithreaded software that lends itself to being spread across numerous cores. We'll have more next week on the software part of the multicore processor equation in Part II of this story.