Intel's Nehalem-EX to Inaugurate a New Era in x86 Scalability

With new processor, x86 systems are poised to make a serious run at RISC-Unix

Once Intel Corp.'s new Nehalem-EX processor ships later this month, it could make a serious run at RISC-Unix in the high-end server market.

Experts point out that today's x86 market isn't nearly so niche-y as it was a decade ago. Buying patterns are changing: for example, sales of x86 servers accounted for more than half of all server revenues in Q4 of 2009. That was a first. In addition, several vendors -- including both Bull Information Systems and IBM Corp. -- are said to be prepping Nehalem-EX systems crammed with 1 TB or more of main memory.

Gordon Haff, a principal IT advisor with consultancy Illuminata, says that the beefiest Nehalem-EX systems will be bona-fide behemoths.

To be sure, some large Nehalem-EX systems -- such as forthcoming entries from Bull and Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI), among others -- are slated for the high-performance computing (HPC) segment. IBM's forthcoming System x entries, on the other hand, are slotted for a variety of workloads.

Haff cites the case of IBM's x3850 X5, which it showcased at CeBIT earlier this month, as an example. This system, he explains, uses a proprietary memory controller (dubbed "MAX5") to support a whopping 3 TB of system memory. That makes it "enormously scalable by any historical x86 standard," he writes.

For a long time, IBM and a pair of competitors -- NEC and Unisys Corp. -- stood alone in engineering value-added Xeon chipset silicon. With the launch of Nehalem-EX, competitors Bull and SGI are also expected to introduce similar technologies, albeit chiefly for HPC-oriented applications.

The upshot: mostly-off-the-shelf x86 systems are -- in some cases without the use of clustering -- increasingly scaling to supercomputer-like configurations -- of half a decade ago.

High End, Low Price

The high-end x86 horsepower of today isn't exactly a steal, however.

IBM's 3TB x3850 X5 prescribes a two-node, four-socket System x configuration. To populate such a system and scale it to 3TB, a customer would also have to purchase two 32-slot MAX5 expansion boxes (with associated cabling) and a total of 192 16 GB DIMMs, which aren't nearly as affordable as commodity 4 or 8 GB modules.

On the other hand, the cost of 512 GB of memory for a two-socket System x server fitted with a technology such as MAX5 will cost customers less than $100,000 -- in addition, of course, to base hardware and premium charges. (IBM isn't giving its MAX5 expansion units away for free, of course, nor are Bull, NEC, or SGI likely do so either.)

Similarly, a still-beefy 256 GB in the same configuration will run about $25,000 (assuming a commodity cost of less than $400 per DIMM), along with base hardware and MAX5 costs.

The bottom line, Haff argues, is cost flexibility: x86 systems now have it -- to a degree once enjoyed only by mainframe or RISC-Unix platforms. "Yes, MAX5 can increase system memory capacity by up to 512GB for each node," he writes. "[J]ust as significantly, more DIMM slots means that a customer could configure, for example, a 768GB system using 8GB DIMMs rather than the more expensive 16GB ones and save a significant amount of money. The two-socket x3690 also goes to 1TB with MAX5. Or can hit 256GB with relatively cheap 4GB DIMMs."

Growing Demand for x86 Iron

There's a sense that x86 might be fast overwhelming its proprietary competitors. In the most recent market tallies from both Gartner and IDC, for example, x86 accounted for the biggest chunk of the high-end server segment.

Furthermore, last year, for the first time ever, Q4 sales of x86 systems surpassed those of mainframe and RISC-Unix boxes, according to IDC. The fourth quarter is traditionally a period during which both Big Iron and RISC-Unix shine. In late-2009, however, both platforms posted much lower than expected sales.

Next year's Q4 numbers will tell us if x86's assault on Big Iron and RISC-Unix has legs -- by then, IBM should have shipped its next-gen mainframe CMOS -- but one thing seems clear: x86 is clearly a high-end play.

Experts such as Haff expect that the manner in which IBM and other vendors market x86 systems will likely change, thanks in part to the scalability and performance -- to say nothing of the cost flexibility -- of Intel's new Nehalem-EX chips.

"While IBM will continue to happily sell server hardware in the usual piece-parts way, with eX5 it is shifting customers toward buying integrated configurations that are optimized for specific types of workloads," he concludes. "The underlying technology, including the basic servers, remains an important part of the ultimate solution, of course, but the focus of eX5 is on delivered value to specific application types rather than on the servers themselves."

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