Axil’s Demise Clears the Way for Intel, Corollary

With the release of the Northbridge NX801 eight-way PC Server in April 1997, Axil Computer Corp. (Concord, Mass., became the first vendor to deliver on the promise of eight-way SMP technology for the Intel Corp. Pentium Pro processor. The recent announcement on the part of Axil parent company Hyundai America that it is closing down Axil operations signifies both the death of a PC server pioneer and the emergence of a void in the high-end Intel Architecture (IA) SMP arena.

Once upon a time, a number of vendors vied for bragging rights in the eight-way SMP space. In addition to Axil, vendors such as NCR Corp. (Dayton, Ohio, and Corollary Inc. (Irvine, Calif., were developing greater-than-four-way SMP architectures for OEM use. NCR developed its OctaScale technology, while Corollary developed a technology called Profusion. In September 1997, Intel purchased Corollary to gain the rights to its Profusion architecture and then quietly purchased the OctaScale technology along with the OctaScale engineering team from NCR early this year.

With the demise of Axil and the Adaptive Memory Crossbar (AMX) technology, there currently exists no high-end OEM SMP solution in the Pentium Pro or Pentium II Xeon space.

Axil company executives are currently trying to secure the necessary funding with which to purchase Axil’s intellectual property from parent company Hyundai America. For now, the future of that endeavor remains uncertain.

But with the release of Xeon, the reign of Pentium Pro SMP systems was over anyhow. Forget Pentium Pro, says Bob Nilsson, vice president of marketing with Axil. “The TPC-C numbers based on four-way Xeon systems are faster than an eight-way Pentium Pro system,” Nilsson observes. “I noticed that a Compaq [Computer Corp.] four-way announced 18,000 tpmC in a recent benchmark.”

While the future may point to Xeon, the present just became cloudy for Axil’s two primary partners in the eight-way space, Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Data General Corp. (DG, Westboro, Mass., Both HP and DG founded the Crossbar Coalition along with Axil in March 1998 to promote Axil’s AMX technology. HP currently offers the AMX technology in its eight-way NetServer LXr Pro8, and DG offers the technology in its eight-way Aviion 8600 server.

Stefano Paoletti, product manager for eight-way systems with HP, offers a pragmatic assessment for the future of HP’s NetServer LXr Pro8. “We think that the LXr Pro8 will have a remaining life of 6 to 9 months, during which time it will continue to be a very viable alternative to these new architectures,” he says.

Paoletti looks to the availability of relatively inexpensive Pentium II Xeon processors with nearly double the computing power of 200-MHz Pentium Pro processors to assuage concerns of a gap or void in the high-end IA space. “Fundamentally, the cost of the chip is not that much higher than the Pentium Pro, and the performance you can extract is higher, so given that there is that [price/performance] ratio, it will indubitably be successful,” Paoletti observes.

The current crop of Xeon-based PC servers aren’t slated to begin shipping in volume until fall, but if preliminary Xeon performance numbers are any indication, Pentium Pro-based servers shouldn’t see very much activity in Xeon’s wake.

Early performance numbers released by the Transaction Processing Performance Council (TPC, show four-way Xeon-based systems performing nearly 60 percent higher than four-way Pentium Pro-based systems in the TPC’s standard TPC-C benchmark test. Accordingly, a Compaq ProLiant 7000 server with four 400-MHz Xeon processors notched a TPC-C benchmark score of 18,127.40 tpmC, with a cost of $27 per tpmC. A Compaq ProLiant 7000 with four 200-MHz Pentium Pro processors had earlier notched a score of 11,055 tpmC, at a cost of $40 per tpmC.

Not only do Xeon-based systems outperform Pentium Pro-based machines with an equivalent processor complement, but they also significantly outperform even eight-way stalwarts such as HP’s NetServer LXr Pro8, the reigning PC server TPC-C performance leader. The eight-way NetServer LXr Pro8 scored 16,257.20 tpmC at $34 per tpmC in the same benchmark.

Clearly, says George White, president Corollary, the performance of Intel architecture processors is ramping up -- at the same time that hardware costs are decreasing. “These processors are just getting more and more powerful, and with each turn of the screw, I think that there’s more and more acceptability for Intel-based architectures,” White contends.

Shortly after purchasing Corollary in September 1997, Intel acknowledged that a standard eight-way architecture based on the Profusion technology would not appear within the lifetime of the Pentium Pro processor but would, instead, be rearchitected for Xeon.

Profusion is due to appear within the first half of 1999, and while White won’t give any indication as to its scalability gradient from four to eight processors, he does acknowledge that Intel hopes to better the 30 to 35 percent gradient of the Pentium Pro processor. “If you look at the Pentium Pro, the four-way systems got tpmCs around 12,000, and the eight-way systems had numbers around 15,000,” White explains. “That was about a 25 to 30 percent increase going from four to eight processors, and let’s just say that we hope to be able to do a better job than that.”

With Intel’s backing, Profusion will likely emerge as the standard for eight-way SMP on Intel-based PC servers. Major OEMs such as Compaq and HP will introduce PC servers based on the Profusion architecture, and more will likely follow.

OEM support aside, other architectures will likely remain viable as well, contends James Gruener, a senior analyst with IT consulting firm the Aberdeen Group (Boston, “When Profusion comes out, there will still be some folks that scale beyond Profusion -- Gateway with their 6-way architecture and Unisys with the 32-way CMP architecture that it has in development, for example” Gruener says. Gruener also points out that the scalability of the Windows NT operating system must also improve if IT organizations are to truly leverage the power afforded by high-end SMP architectures.