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.
Last week it was Dell’s turn to tout its new wares, as it pulled back the curtain on its 12th-eneration servers and associated infrastructure. I’m still digging through all the details, but at first glance it looks like Dell has been listening to a lot of the same customer input as HP, and as a result their messages (and very likely the value delivered) are in many ways similar. Among the highlights of Dell’s messaging are:
Faster provisioning with next-gen agentless intelligent controllers — Dell’s version is iDRAC7, and in conjunction with its LifeCyle Controller firmware, Dell makes many of the same claims as HP, including faster time to provision and maintain new servers, automatic firmware updates, and many fewer administrative steps, resulting in opex savings.
Intelligent storage tiering and aggressive use of flash memory, under the aegis of Dell’s “Fluid Storage” architecture, introduced last year.
A high-profile positioning for its Virtual Network architecture, building on its acquisition of Force10 Networks last year. With HP and now Dell aiming for more of the network budget in the data center, it’s not hard to understand why Cisco was so aggressive in pursuing its piece of the server opportunity — any pretense of civil coexistence in the world of enterprise networks is gone, and the only mutual interest holding the vendors together is their customers’ demand that they continue to play well together.
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 AMD 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 for SeaMicro’s original Atom-based offering.
On Monday, February 13, HP announced its next turn of the great wheel for servers with the announcement of its Gen8 family of servers. Interestingly, since the announcement was ahead of Intel’s official announcement of the supporting E5 server CPUs, HP had absolutely nothing to say about the CPUs or performance of these systems. But even if the CPU information had been available, it would have been a sideshow to the main thrust of the Gen8 launch — improving the overall TCO (particularly Opex) of servers by making them more automated, more manageable, and easier to remediate when there is a problem, along with enhancements to storage, data center infrastructure management (DCIM) capabilities, and a fundamental change in the way that services and support are delivered.
With a little more granularity, the major components of the Gen8 server technology announcement included:
Onboard Automation – A suite of capabilities and tools that provide improved agentless local intelligence to allow quicker and lower labor cost provisioning, including faster boot cycles, “one click” firmware updates of single or multiple systems, intelligent and greatly improved boot-time diagnostics, and run-time diagnostics. This is apparently implemented by more powerful onboard management controllers and pre-provisioning a lot of software on built-in flash memory, which is used by the onboard controller. HP claims that the combination of these tools can increase operator productivity by up to 65%. One of the eye-catching features is an iPhone app that will scan a code printed on the server and go back through the Insight Management Environment stack and trigger the appropriate script to provision the server.[i]Possibly a bit of a gimmick, but a cool-looking one.
In late 2010 I noted that startup SeaMicro had introduced an ultra-dense server using Intel Atom chips in an innovative fabric-based architecture that allowed them to factor out much of the power overhead from a large multi-CPU server ( http://blogs.forrester.com/richard_fichera/10-09-21-little_servers_big_applications_intel_developer_forum). Along with many observers, I noted that the original SeaMicro server was well-suited to many light-weight edge processing tasks, but that the system would not support more traditional compute-intensive tasks due to the performance of the Atom core. I was, however, quite taken with the basic architecture, which uses a proprietary high-speed (1.28 Tb/s) 3D mesh interconnect to allow the CPU cores to share network, BIOS and disk resources that are normally replicated on a per-server in conventional designs, with commensurate reductions in power and an increase in density.
So I made the trek from Singapore to Orlando for Lotusphere the week of January 15th and it proved well worth the time and effort. It was actually one of the best events of its kind I’ve attended in years — and I’ve attended loads. IBM expanded the focus well beyond the “legacy” Lotus brand. In fact, this was a social business event from start to finish, with IBM linking its much broader social computing portfolio to business process improvement and value creation.
The focus and scope has clearly grown beyond the current event branding. But putting event naming issues aside for the moment, below are some key takeaways:
Evolving into a social business applies to all organizations — any process that relies on people will fundamentally change. IBM made a solid case that business transformation is not only possible but mandatory. A social business excels at discovering and sharing new ideas — fundamentally changing how people work and therefore how companies operate. Companies not embracing this change will get left behind.
IBM’s vision for social business — business process disruption is inevitable. Focusing heavily on a process-centric view, IBM downplayed tools and technology. Per IBM, social business is the intersection of social technologies and front-office business processes — as significant to top-line revenue growth over the next decade as SOA has been to back-office business processes and bottom-line cost savings over the last decade.
I’ve been with Forrester for just over a month now. It’s great to be involved with our clients and communities and to be helping businesses across the world evaluate the quality of software suppliers' proposals from a commercial perspective (e.g., is this a great deal or can the supplier do better?). One of the best parts of being at Forrester now is seeing the continuation of the work I did prior to joining Forrester — advising businesses on software contract and pricing negotiations. One thing I noticed then, and continue to hear about now, is the reluctance of software suppliers like IBM, BMC, CA, and Compuware to publish meaningful list prices or to explain how their price book worked or how discounts had been determined. Time and again I had to ask suppliers to un-bundle prices and confirm the basis for the net prices they were proposing. Does anyone else agree with me that pricing should be clear and transparent and not a black art?
Here’s an example of an “art” that should be science: list pricing. While it’s logical to think list pricing is the same foundation upon which all bids are built, that’s actually not the case. Often, I found that my clients were being quoted “list pricing” that was different. Isn’t list pricing supposed to be the same by definition? Which is why you may with good reason doubt the validity of a list price or the competitiveness of a discount that you’re being offered by a software supplier. It’s why I love my work, and why you should make sure you get third-party validation of your deals.
How you do validate your software vendors’ list pricing and proposed discounts?
OK, it’s time to stretch the 2012 writing muscles, and what better way to do it than with the time honored “retrospective” format. But rather than try and itemize all the news and come up with a list of maybe a dozen or more interesting things, I decided instead to pick the best and the worst – events and developments that show the amazing range of the technology business, its potentials and its daily frustrations. So, drum roll, please. My personal nomination for the best and worst of the year (along with a special extra bonus category) are:
The Best – IBM Watson stomps the world’s best human players in Jeopardy. In early 2011, IBM put its latest deep computing project, Watson, up against some of the best players in the world in a game of Jeopardy. Watson, consisting of hundreds of IBM Power CPUs, gazillions of bytes of memory and storage, and arguably the most sophisticated rules engine and natural language recognition capability ever developed, won hands down. If you haven’t seen the videos of this event, you should – seeing the IBM system fluidly answer very tricky questions is amazing. There is no sense that it is parsing the question and then sorting through 200 – 300 million pages of data per second in the background as it assembles its answers. This is truly the computer industry at its best. IBM lived up to its brand image as the oldest and strongest technology company and showed us a potential for integrating computers into untapped new potential solutions. Since the Jeopardy event, IBM has been working on commercializing Watson with an eye toward delivering domain-specific expert advisors. I recently listened to a presentation by a doctor participating in the trials of a Watson medical assistant, and the results were startling in terms of the potential to assist medical professionals in diagnostic procedures.
The proposed acquisitions of SuccessFactors by SAP, and of Emptoris by IBM got me thinking about the impact on buyers of market consolidation, in respect of the difference between dealing with independent specialists versus technology giants selling a large portfolio of products and services. Sourcing professionals talk about wanting “one throat to choke,” but personally I’ve never met one with hands big enough to get round the neck of a huge vendor such as IBM or Oracle. Moreover, many of the giants organize their sales teams by product line, to ensure they fully understand the product they are selling, rather than giving customers one account manager for the whole portfolio who may not understand any of it in sufficient depth. Our clients complain about having to deal with just as many reps as before the acquisitions. They all now have the same logo on their business card, but can’t fix problems outside their area, nor negotiate based on the complete relationship. It seems that buyers end up like Hercules, wrestling either with a Nemean lion or with a Lernaean hydra.
The acquirers' press releases tend to take it for granted that customers will be better off with the one-stop shop. Bill McDermott, co-CEO of SAP, said, “Together, SAP and SuccessFactors will create tremendous business value for customers.” While Lars Dalgaard, founder and CEO of SuccessFactors, talks about “expanding relationships with SAP’s 176,000 customers.” Craig Hayman, general manager of industry solutions at IBM, said, “Adding Emptoris strengthens the comprehensive capabilities we deliver and enables IBM to meet the specific needs of chief procurement officers."