Entering into a new competitive segment, especially one dominated by major players with well-staked out turf, requires a level of hyperbole, dramatic positioning and a differentiable product. Cisco has certainly achieved all this and more in the first two years of shipment of its UCS product, and shows no signs of fatigue to date.
However, Cisco’s announcement this week that it is now part of Microsoft’s Fast Track Data Warehouse and Fast Track OLTP program is a sign that UCS is also entering the mainstream of enterprise technology. The Microsoft Fast Track program, offering a set of reference architectures, system specification and sizing guides for both common usage scenarios for Microsoft SQL Server, is not new, nor is it in any way unique to Cisco. Fast Track includes Dell, HP, IBM, and Bull. The fact that Cisco will now get equal billing from Microsoft in this program is significant – it is the beginning of the transition from emerging fringe to mainstream , and an endorsement to anyone in the infrastructure business that Cisco is now appearing on the same stage as the major incumbents.
Will this represent a breakthrough revenue opportunity for Cisco? Probably not, since Microsoft will be careful not to play favorites and will certainly not risk alienating its major systems partners, but Cisco’s inclusion on this list is another incremental step in becoming a mainstream server supplier. Like the chicken soup that my grandmother used to offer, it can’t hurt.
The drum continues to beat for converged infrastructure products, and Dell has given it the latest thump with the introduction of vStart, a pre-integrated environment for VMware. Best thought of as a competitor to VCE, the integrated VMware, Cisco and EMC virtualization stack, vStart combines:
Intel today publicly announced its anticipated “Westmere EX” high end Westmere architecture server CPU as the E7, now part of a new family nomenclature encompassing entry (E3), midrange (E5), and high-end server CPUs (E7), and at first glance it certainly looks like it delivers on the promise of the Westmere architecture with enhancements that will appeal to buyers of high-end x86 systems.
The E7 in a nutshell:
32 nm CPU with up to 10 cores, each with hyper threading, for up to 20 threads per socket.
Intel claims that the system-level performance will be up to 40% higher than the prior generation 8-core Nehalem EX. Notice that the per-core performance improvement is modest (although Intel does offer a SKU with 8 cores and a slightly higher clock rate for those desiring ultimate performance per thread).
Improvements in security with Intel Advanced Encryption Standard New Instruction (AES-NI) and Intel Trusted Execution Technology (Intel TXT).
Major improvements in power management by incorporating the power management capabilities from the Xeon 5600 CPUs, which include more aggressive P states, improved idle power operation, and the ability to separately reduce individual core power setting depending on workload, although to what extent this is supported on systems that do not incorporate Intel’s Node Manager software is not clear.
Since its introduction of its Core 2 architecture, Intel reversed much of the damage done to it by AMD in the server space, with attendant publicity. AMD, however, has been quietly reclaiming some ground with its 12-core 6100 series CPUs, showing strength in benchmarks that emphasize high throughput in process-rich environments as opposed to maximum performance per core. Several AMD-based system products have also been cited by their manufacturers to us as enjoying very strong customer acceptance due to the throughput of the 12-core CPUs combined with their attractive pricing. As a fillip to this success, AMD this past week announced speed bumps for the 6100-series products to give a slight performance boost as they continue to compete with Intel’s Xeon 5600 and 7500 products (Intel’s Sandy Bridge server products have not yet been announced).
But the real news last week was the quiet subtext that the anticipated 16-core Interlagos products based on the new Bulldozer core appear to be on schedule for Q2 ’11 shipments system partners, who should probably be able to ship systems during Q3, and that AMD is still certifying them as compatible with the current sockets used for the 12-core 6000 CPUs. This implies that system partners will be able to quickly deliver products based on the new parts very rapidly.
Actual performance of these systems will obviously be dependent on the workloads being run, but our gut feeling is that while they will not rival the per-core performance of the Intel Xeon 7500 CPUs, for large throughput-oriented environments with high numbers of processes, a description that fits a large number of web and middleware environments, these CPUs, each with up to a 50% performance advantage per core over the current AMD CPUs, may deliver some impressive benchmarks and keep the competition in the server space at a boil, which in the end is always helpful to customers.
From nothing more than an outlandish speculation, the prospects for a new entrant into the volume Linux and Windows server space have suddenly become much more concrete, culminating in an immense buzz at CES as numerous players, including NVIDIA and Microsoft, stoked the fires with innuendo, announcements, and demos.
Consumers of x86 servers are always on the lookout for faster, cheaper, and more power-efficient servers. In the event that they can’t get all three, the combination of cheaper and more energy-efficient seems to be attractive to a large enough chunk of the market to have motivated Intel, AMD, and all their system partners to develop low-power chips and servers designed for high density compute and web/cloud environments. Up until now the debate was Intel versus AMD, and low power meant a CPU with four cores and a power dissipation of 35 – 65 Watts.
The Promised Land
The performance trajectory of processors that were formerly purely mobile device processors, notably the ARM Cortex, has suddenly introduced a new potential option into the collective industry mindset. But is this even a reasonable proposition, and if so, what does it take for it to become a reality?
Our first item of business is to figure out whether or not it even makes sense to think about these CPUs as server processors. My quick take is yes, with some caveats. The latest ARM offering is the Cortex A9, with vendors offering dual core products at up to 1.2 GHz currently (the architecture claims scalability to four cores and 2 GHz). It draws approximately 2W, much less than any single core x86 CPU, and a multi-core version should be able to execute any reasonable web workload. Coupled with the promise of embedded GPUs, the notion of a server that consumes much less power than even the lowest power x86 begins to look attractive. But…
NetApp recently announced that it was acquiring Akorri, a small but highly regarded provider of management solutions for virtualized storage environments. All in all, this is yet another sign of the increasingly strategic importance of virtualized infrastructure and the need for existing players, regardless of how strong their positions are in their respective silos, to acquire additional tools and capabilities for management of an extended virtualized environment.
NetApp, while one of the strongest suppliers in the storage industry, not only faces continued pressure from not only EMC, which owns VMware and has been on a management software acquisition binge for years, but also renewed pressure from IBM and HP, who are increasingly tying their captive storage offerings into their own integrated virtualized infrastructure offerings. This tighter coupling of proprietary technology, while not explicitly disenfranchising external storage vendors, will still tighten the screws slightly and reduce the number of opportunities for NetApp to partner with them. Even Dell, long regarded as the laggard in high-end enterprise presence, has been ramping up its investment management and ability to deliver integrated infrastructure, including both the purchase of storage technology and a very clear signal with its run at 3Par and recent investments in companies such as Scalent (see my previous blog on Dell as an enterprise player and my colleague Andrew Reichman’s discussion of the 3Par acquisition) that it wants to go even further as a supplier of integrated infrastructure.
I’ve recently had the opportunity to talk with a small sample of SLES 11 and RH 6 Linux users, all developing their own applications. All were long-time Linux users, and two of them, one in travel services and one in financial services, had applications that can be described as both large and mission-critical.
The overall message is encouraging for Linux advocates, both the calm rational type as well as those who approach it with near-religious fervor. The latest releases from SUSE and Red Hat, both based on the 2.6.32 Linux kernel, show significant improvements in scalability and modest improvements in iso-configuration performance. One user reported that an application that previously had maxed out at 24 cores with SLES 10 was now nearing production certification with 48 cores under SLES 11. Performance scalability was reported as “not linear, but worth doing the upgrade.”
Overall memory scalability under Linux is still a question mark, since the widely available x86 platforms do not exceed 3 TB of memory, but initial reports from a user familiar with HP’s DL 980 verify that the new Linux Kernel can reliably manage at least 2TB of RAM under heavy load.
File system options continue to expand as well. The older Linux FS standard, ETX4, which can scale to “only” 16 TB, has been joined by additional options such as XFS (contributed by SGI), which has been implemented in several installations with file systems in excess of 100 TB, relieving a limitation that may have been more psychological than practical for most users.
In October, with great fanfare, the Open Data Center Alliance unfurled its banners. The ODCA is a consortium of approximately 50 large IT consumers, including large manufacturing, hosting and telecomm providers, with the avowed intent of developing standards for interoperable cloud computing. In addition to the roster of users, the announcement highlighted Intel with an ambiguous role as a technology advisor to the group. The ODCA believes that it will achieve some weight in the industry due to its estimated $50 billion per year of cumulative IT purchasing power, and the trade press was full of praises for influential users driving technology as opposed to allowing rapacious vendors such as HP and IBM to drive users down proprietary paths that lead to vendor lock-in.
Now that we’ve had a month or more to allow the purple prose to settle a bit, let’s look at the underlying claims, potential impact of the ODCA and the shifting roles of vendors and consumers of technology. And let’s not forget about the role of Intel.
First, let me state unambiguously that one of the core intentions of the ODCA, the desire to develop common use case models that will in turn drive vendors to develop products that comply with the models based on the economic clout of the ODCA members (and hopefully there will be a correlation between ODCA member requirements and those of a wider set of consumers), is a good idea. Vendors spend a lot of time talking to users and trying to understand their requirements, and having the ODCA as a proxy for the requirements of a lot of very influential customers will be a benefit to all concerned.
I met recently with Cisco’s UCS group in San Jose to get a quick update on sales and maybe some hints about future development. The overall picture is one of rapid growth decoupled from whatever pressures Cisco management has cautioned about in other areas of the business.
Overall, according to recent disclosure by Cisco CEO John Chambers, Cisco’s UCS revenue is growing at a 550% Y/Y growth rate, with the most recent quarterly revenues indicating a $500M run rate (we make that out as about $125M quarterly revenue). This figure does not seem to include the over 4,000 blades used by Cisco IT, nor does it include units being consumed internally by Cisco and subsequently shipped to customers as part of appliances or other Cisco products. Also of note is the fact that it is fiscal Q1 for Cisco, traditionally its weakest quarter, although with an annual growth rate in excess of 500% we would expect that UCS sequential quarters will be marching to a totally different drummer than the overall company numbers.
I have been working on a research document, to be published this quarter, on the impact of 8-socket x86 servers based on Intel’s new Xeon 7500 CPU. In a nutshell, these systems have the performance of the best-of-breed RISC/UNIX systems of three years ago, at a substantially better price, and their overall performance improvement trajectory has been steeper than competing technologies for the past decade.
This is probably not shocking news and is not the subject of this current post, although I would encourage you to read it when it is finally published. During the course of researching this document I spent time trying to prove or disprove my thesis that x86 system performance solidly overlapped that of RISC/UNIX with available benchmark results. The process highlighted for me the limitations of using standardized benchmarks for performance comparisons. There are now so many benchmarks available that system vendors are only performing each benchmark on selected subsets of their product lines, if at all. Additionally, most benchmarks suffer from several common flaws:
They are results from high-end configurations, in many cases far beyond the norm for any normal use cases, but results cannot be interpolated to smaller, more realistic configurations.
They are often the result of teams of very smart experts tuning the system configurations, application and system software parameters for optimal results. For a large benchmark such as SAP or TPC, it is probably reasonable to assume that there are over 1,000 variables involved in the tuning effort. This makes the results very much like EPA mileage figures — the consumer is guaranteed not to exceed these numbers.