Yesterday Intel had a major press and analyst event in San Francisco to talk about their vision for the future of the data center, anchored on what has become in many eyes the virtuous cycle of future infrastructure demand – mobile devices and “the Internet of things” driving cloud resource consumption, which in turn spews out big data which spawns storage and the requirement for yet more computing to analyze it. As usual with these kinds of events from Intel, it was long on serious vision, and strong on strategic positioning but a bit parsimonious on actual future product information with a couple of interesting exceptions.
Content and Core Topics:
No major surprises on the underlying demand-side drivers. The the proliferation of mobile device, the impending Internet of Things and the mountains of big data that they generate will combine to continue to increase demand for cloud-resident infrastructure, particularly servers and storage, both of which present Intel with an opportunity to sell semiconductors. Needless to say, Intel laced their presentations with frequent reminders about who was the king of semiconductor manufacturingJ
Background — High Performance Attached Processors Handicapped By Architecture
The application of high-performance accelerators, notably GPUs, GPGPUs (APUs in AMD terminology) to a variety of computing problems has blossomed over the last decade, resulting in ever more affordable compute power for both horizon and mundane problems, along with growing revenue streams for a growing industry ecosystem. Adding heat to an already active mix, Intel’s Xeon Phi accelerators, the most recent addition to the GPU ecosystem, have the potential to speed adoption even further due to hoped-for synergies generated by the immense universe of x86 code that could potentially run on the Xeon Phi cores.
However, despite any potential synergies, GPUs (I will use this term generically to refer to all forms of these attached accelerators as they currently exist in the market) suffer from a fundamental architectural problem — they are very distant, in terms of latency, from the main scalar system memory and are not part of the coherent memory domain. This in turn has major impacts on performance, cost, design of the GPUs, and the structure of the algorithms:
Performance — The latency for memory accesses generally dictated by PCIe latencies, which while much improved over previous generations, are a factor of 100 or more longer than latency from coherent cache or local scalar CPU memory. While clever design and programming, such as overlapping and buffering multiple transfers can hide the latency in a series of transfers, it is difficult to hide the latency for an initial block of data. Even AMD’s integrated APUs, in which the GPU elements are on a common die, do not share a common memory space, and explicit transfers are made in and out of the APU memory.
HP today announced the Moonshot 1500 server, their first official volume product in the Project Moonshot server product family (the initial Redstone, a Calxeda ARM-based server, was only available in limited quantities as a development system), and it represents both a significant product today and a major stake in the ground for future products, both from HP and eventually from competitors. It’s initial attractions – an extreme density low power x86 server platform for a variety of low-to-midrange CPU workloads – hides the fact that it is probably a blueprint for both a family of future products from HP as well as similar products from other vendors.
Geek Stuff – What was Announced
The Moonshot 1500 is a 4.3U enclosure that can contain up to 45 plug-in server cartridges, each one a complete server node with a dual-core Intel Atom 1200 CPU, up to 8 GB of memory and a single disk or SSD device, up to 1 TB, and the servers share common power supplies and cooling. But beyond the density, the real attraction of the MS1500 is its scalable fabric and CPU-agnostic architecture. Embedded in the chassis are multiple fabrics for storage, management and network giving the MS1500 (my acronym, not an official HP label) some of the advantages of a blade server without the advanced management capabilities. At initial shipment, only the network and management fabric will be enabled by the system firmware, with each chassis having up two Gb Ethernet switches (technically they can be configured with one, but nobody will do so), allowing the 45 servers to share uplinks to the enterprise network.
Today’s announcements at the Open Compute Project (OCP) 2013 Summit could be considered as tangible markers for the OCP crossing the line into real relevance as an important influence on emerging hyper-scale and cloud computing as well as having a potential bleed-through into the world of enterprise data centers and computing. This is obviously a subjective viewpoint – there is no objective standard for relevance, only post-facto recognition that something was important or not. But in this case I’m going to stick my neck out and predict that OCP will have some influence and will be a sticky presence in the industry for many years.
Even if their specs (which look generally quite good) do not get picked up verbatim, they will act as an influence on major vendors who will, much like the auto industry in the 1970s, get the message that there is a market for economical “low-frills” alternatives.
Major OCP Initiatives
To date, OCP has announced a number of useful hardware specifications, including:
With a couple of months' perspective, I’m pretty convinced that Intel has made a potentially disruptive entry in the market for programmable computational accelerators, often referred to as GPGPUs (General Purpose Graphics Processing Units) in deference to the fact that the market leaders, NVIDIA and AMD, have dominated the segment with parallel computational units derived from high-end GPUs. In late 2012, Intel, referring to the architecture as MIC (Many Independent Cores) introduced the Xeon Phi product, the long-awaited productization of the development project that was known internally (and to the rest of the world as well) as Knight’s Ferry, a MIC coprocessor with up to 62 modified Xeon cores implemented in its latest 22 nm process.
Earlier this week, in conjunction with ARM Holdings plc’s announcement of the upcoming Cortex A53 and A57, full 64-bit CPU implementations based on the ARM V8 specification, AMD also announced that it would be designing and selling SOC (System On a Chip) products based on this technology in 2014, roughly coinciding with availability of 64-bit parts from ARM and other partners.
This is a major event in the ARM ecosystem. AMD, while much smaller than Intel, is still a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, and for the second largest vendor of x86 chips to also throw its hat into the ARM ecosystem and potentially compete with its own mainstream server and desktop CPU business is an aggressive move on the part of AMD management that carries some risk and much potential advantage.
Reduced to its essentials, what AMD announced (and in some cases hinted at):
Intention to produce A53/A57 SOC modules for multiple server segments. There was no formal statement of intentions regarding tablet/mobile devices, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that AMD wants a piece of this market, and ARM is a way to participate.
The announcement is wider that just the SOC silicon. AMD also hinted at making a range of IP, including its fabric architecture from the SeaMicro architecture, available in the form of “reusable IP blocks.” My interpretation is that it intends to make the fabric, reference architectures, and various SOCs available to its hardware system partners.
[For some reason this has been unpublished since April — so here it is well after AMD announced its next spin of the SeaMicro product.]
At its recent financial analyst day, AMD indicated that it intended to differentiate itself by creating products that were advantaged in niche markets, with specific mention, among other segments, of servers, and to generally shake up the trench warfare that has had it on the losing side of its lifelong battle with Intel (my interpretation, not AMD management’s words). Today, at least for the server side of the business, it made a move that can potentially offer it visibility and differentiation by acquiring innovative server startup SeaMicro.
SeaMicro has attracted our attention since its appearance (blog post 1, blog post 2) with its innovative architecture that dramatically reduces power and improves density by sharing components like I/O adapters, disks, and even BIOS over a proprietary fabric. The irony here is that SeaMicro came to market with a tight alignment with Intel, who at one point even introduced a special dual-core packaging of its Atom CPU to allow SeaMicro to improve its density and power efficiency. Most recently SeaMicro and Intel announced a new model that featured Xeon CPUs to address the more mainstream segments that were not a part of SeaMicro’s original Atom-based offering.
Earlier this week at its Discover customer event, HP announced a significant set of improvements to its already successful c-Class BladeSystem product line, which, despite continuing competitive pressure from IBM and the entry of Cisco into the market three years ago, still commands approximately 50% of the blade market. The significant components of this announcement fall into four major functional buckets – improved hardware, simplified and expanded storage features, new interconnects and I/O options, and serviceability enhancements. Among the highlights are:
Direct connection of HP 3PAR storage – One of the major drawbacks for block-mode storage with blades has always been the cost of the SAN to connect it to the blade enclosure. With the ability to connect an HP 3PAR storage array directly to the c-Class enclosure without any SAN components, HP has reduced both the cost and the complexity of storage for a wide class of applications that have storage requirements within the scope of a single storage array.
New blades – With this announcement, HP fills in the gaps in their blade portfolio, announcing a new Intel Xeon EN based BL-420 for entry requirements, an upgrade to the BL-465 to support the latest AMD 16-core Interlagos CPU, and the BL-660, a new single-width Xeon E5 based 4-socket blade. In addition, HP has expanded the capacity of the sidecar storage blade to 1.5 TB, enabling an 8-server and 12 TB + chassis configuration.
I said last year that this would happen sometime in the first half of this year, but for some reason my colleagues and clients have kept asking me exactly when we would see a real ARM server running a real OS. How about now?
To copy from Calxeda’s most recent blog post:
“This week, Calxeda is showing a live Calxeda cluster running Ubuntu 12.04 LTS on real EnergyCore hardware at the Ubuntu Developer and Cloud Summit events in Oakland, CA. … This is the real deal; quad-core, w/ 4MB cache, secure management engine, and Calxeda’s fabric all up and running.”
This is a significant milestone for many reasons. It proves that Calxeda can indeed deliver a working server based on its scalable fabric architecture, although having HP signing up as a partner meant that this was essentially a non-issue, but still, proof is good. It also establishes that at least one Linux distribution provider, in this case Ubuntu, is willing to provide a real supported distribution. My guess is that Red Hat and Centos will jump on the bus fairly soon as well.
Most importantly, we can get on with the important work of characterizing real benchmarks on real systems with real OS support. HP’s discovery centers will certainly play a part in this process as well, and I am willing to bet that by the end of the summer we will have some compelling data on whether the ARM server will deliver on its performance and energy efficiency promises. It’s not a slam dunk guaranteed win – Intel has been steadily ratcheting up its energy efficiency, and the latest generation of x86 server from HP, IBM, Dell, and others show promise of much better throughput per watt than their predecessors. Add to that the demonstration of a Xeon-based system by Sea Micro (ironically now owned by AMD) that delivered Xeon CPUs at a 10 W per CPU power overhead, an unheard of efficiency.
Today, after two of its largest partners have already announced their systems portfolios that will use it, Intel finally announced one of the worst-kept secrets in the industry: the Xeon E5-2600 family of processors.
OK, now that I’ve got in my jab at the absurdity of the announcement scheduling, let’s look at the thing itself. In a nutshell, these new processors, based on the previous-generation 32 nm production process of the Xeon 5600 series but incorporating the new “Sandy Bridge” architecture, are, in fact, a big deal. They incorporate several architectural innovations and will bring major improvements in power efficiency and performance to servers. Highlights include:
Performance improvements on selected benchmarks of up to 80% above the previous Xeon 5600 CPUs, apparently due to both improved CPU architecture and larger memory capacity (up to 24 DIMMs at 32 GB per DIMM equals a whopping 768 GB capacity for a two-socket, eight-core/socket server).
Improved I/O architecture, including an on-chip PCIe 3 controller and a special mode that allows I/O controllers to write directly to the CPU cache without a round trip to memory — a feature that only a handful of I/O device developers will use, but one that contributes to improved I/O performance and lowers CPU overhead during PCIe I/O.
Significantly improved energy efficiency, with the SPECpower_ssj2008 benchmark showing a 50% improvement in performance per watt over previous models.