Growth Spurt: Intel-based Servers Scale Up

Not your grandfather’s commodity hardware platform

Intel servers are growing up in a hurry, as some major vendors are now shipping 16-way systems. At the same time, 32- and 64-way Intel servers from a handful of industry heavyweights are poised to challenge entrenched RISC-Unix systems in some markets, analysts say.

For years, Unisys Corp.—which markets its ES7000 line of Intel-based servers—was the only game in town, at least when it came to greater-than-16-way systems. But in the past 12 months, NEC has demonstrated a shipping 32-way Itanium-based system and Silicon Graphics Inc. is now selling a 64-way Itanium-based supercomputer. Meanwhile, Fujitsu Ltd., Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), and—as of last week—IBM Corp. have all made noises about marketing, respectively 128-way, 64-way and 32-way Intel-based servers.

Half a decade ago, the vast majority of shipping Intel-based servers were based on single, dual or (less likely) quad-processor configurations. Eight-way systems, such as they were, exploited Intel’s aging Pentium Pro microprocessor, which was already two years old and running out of gas. Specialty vendors such as Axil Computer Corp. (AMX), Corollary Corp. (Profusion) and NCR Corp. (OctaScale) developed and—in the case of Axil, anyway—marketed eight-way chipsets for Intel’s Pentium Pro microprocessor. At the time, HP enjoyed some success selling eight-way Intel-based systems, based on Axil’s AMX technology, in the form of its NetServer LXr Pro boxes.

What a difference five years can make! In late January, for example, Fujitsu announced plans to ship a 128-way Itanium-based server by 2005. The Japanese computing giant—which has a pedigree in the design of large mainframe and Unix systems—has said that it will also introduce large systems based on Intel’s Xeon-DP and Xeon-MP chips by the end of next year.

And that’s not all: Unisys Corp. has also disclosed plans to support up to 128 Itanium processors on future versions of its hardware, while HP—which co-developed Itanium in conjunction with Intel—has already demonstrated one of its 64-way Itanium-based SuperDome systems running the 64-bit Edition of Windows 2003 Server. When combined with a new packaging technology HP is expected to release in early 2004—dubbed mx2—SuperDome will be able to support as many as 128 Itanium chips in a single server.

For its part, NEC’s 32-way Itanium system isn’t any slouch, either: It currently holds the Transaction Processing Performance Council’s performance record for a single database server.

Most massive Intel server efforts have thus far involved chips based on Intel’s Itanium processor family (IPF) architecture—although Unisys also supports Xeon-MP processors in its ES7000 servers. But IBM, which has its own 64-bit powerhouse in its Power RISC processor, has been understandably less than aggressive in delivering support for IPF. Instead, Big Blue has focused on delivering solutions based on Intel’s 32-bit Xeon-MP chips.

In December 2002, for example, Big Blue shipped its long-awaited xSeries 440 server, which supports up to 16 Xeon-MP processors. This week, IBM disclosed plans to support up to 32 Xeon chips on a forthcoming xSeries box—the x445—sometime this year. The upshot, argues Deepak Advani, IBM’s VP of high performance Intel servers, is that on the basis of raw performance, Intel’s Xeon MP processors—which today clock in at greater than 3 GHz—are increasingly capable of challenging RISC for some 32-bit workloads. “These processors are getting really, really fast. So we’re seeing high-end [Xeon] servers challenging some RISC-Unix.”

Not So Fast

Not surprisingly, analysts expect that Intel-based servers, powered by 32-bit Xeon or 64-bit Itanium 2 microprocessors, will increasingly penetrate into the mid-range and high-end enterprise server segments. Both such spaces were once the exclusive provenance of RISC-Unix servers, along with iSeries minicomputers and zSeries mainframes from IBM Corp.

Intel’s 32-bit chips will probably remain a midrange play for most computing purposes. That’s because they’re constrained by a number of factors—memory bandwidth and limited support for large system memory, at least vis-à-vis existing RISC architectures, foremost among them—that will curtail their use in high-end applications. For example, in order to support Xeon in greater than four way configurations, vendors must engineer their own crossbar switches and proprietary memory controllers. Unisys, of course, has been well ahead of the curve here, but IBM also has a greater than four way chipset (XA32) that should give it gas out to 32-processsors.

By far the biggest drawback associated with Intel’s 32-bit Xeon chips—at least at a time when even desktop machines are shipping with 512 MB of RAM—is the 4 GB limitation that their 32-bit address space imposes upon system memory configurations. While 4 GB of memory may be sufficient for a four-way low-end system, it’s altogether inadequate for a 32-way monster. To address this issue, Intel’s Xeon chips support 36-bit Physical Address Extensions—which extend main memory support out to 64 GB—but even here there are drawbacks.

Notes Gordon Haff, an analyst with consultancy Illuminata, “The issue with using PAE in the [Xeon] architecture is that it effectively adds an additional level of address translation, which from a database performance point of view, and that is a big part of what we’re talking about with commercial applications, means that you certainly lose a fair bit of performance.”

Not surprisingly, Advani says large Xeon systems are usually deployed in support of more conventional workloads—such as Web serving or in support of e-business applications—and partitioned accordingly. As far as SMP configurations go, “the sweet spot is eight-way processors,” but some customers have opted to deploy 16-way large SMP images. When Big Blue ships its 32-way Xeon-based system later this year, he expects most customers will probably choose to partition it into smaller SMP nodes. “We are seeing customers showing interest in running the 16-way in a large image or large database, and the other key deployment is for server consolidation, and this is where partitioning becomes very important.”

Intel’s IPF architecture, on the other hand, faces a different kind of challenge: The surfeit of 32-bit applications. Itanium must run 32-bit code in an emulation layer that results in significantly degraded performance, so chances are that on Windows and Linux platforms, anyway, most uptick will occur in support of applications that require a 64-bit address space.

Haff speculates that large databases, in particular, could comprise a “killer app” for Itanium, even as IPF uptick is slow in other markets. “The TPC-C [results] that have been delivered on Itanium and SQL Server with Windows Server 2003 are extremely impressive. The NEC benchmark, besting everything except a 128-way processor Fujitsu system, that’s enormously impressive. And I certainly think that Windows is going to make some gains in big databases running on top of Itanium, probably primarily delivered by HP.”

Windows is by no means the only game in town on Itanium, however. SGI markets its Altix 3000 supercomputer, which supports Linux running across as many as 64 Itanium processors, while HP and Fujitsu will also support Linux on their massive Itanium servers. And HP, of course, got involved with Itanium in the first place as a means to replace the PA-RISC architecture that today powers its HP-UX operating environment.

A Slow Transition

Despite its impressive benchmark results and the support of high-end vendors, no one expects that Itanium will immediately challenge its 64-bit brethren for share, however.

In Q2 2002, for example, only 722 servers running Itanium or Itanium 2 were shipped, says Jeff Hewitt, an analyst with market research firm Gartner Inc.

Even five years out, Itanium could still be playing catch-up. By 2007, Hewitt projects, Itanium will account for about $4 billion of all revenue in the enterprise server market. By contrast, Sun’s UltraSPARC architecture will generate over $6 billion in revenue.

Hewitt projects that in 2007 IBM’s Power architecture will be the 64-bit market leader, with $8.6 billion of market revenues.

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