The Empire Strikes Back – Intel Reveals An Effective Low-Power And Micro Server Strategy

Richard Fichera

A lot has been written about potential threats to Intel’s low-power server hegemony, including discussions of threats from not only its perennial minority rival AMD but also from emerging non-x86 technologies such as ARM servers. While these are real threats, with potential for disrupting Intel’s position in the low power and small form factor server segment if left unanswered, Intel’s management has not been asleep at the wheel. As part of the rollout of the new Sandy Bridge architecture, Intel recently disclosed their platform strategy for what they are defining as “Micro Servers,” small single-socket servers with shared power and cooling to improve density beyond the generally accepted dividing line of one server per RU that separates “standard density” from “high density.” While I think that Intel’s definition is a bit myopic, mostly serving to attach a label to a well established category, it is a useful tool for segmenting low-end servers and talking about the relevant workloads.

Intel’s strategy revolves around introducing successive generations of its Sandy Bridge and future architectures embodied as Low Power (LP) and Ultra Low Power (ULP) products with promises of up to 2.2X performance per watt and 30% less actual power compared to previous generation equivalent x86 servers, as outlined in the following chart from Intel:

So what does this mean for Infrastructure & Operations professionals interested in serving the target loads for micro servers, such as:

  • Basic content delivery and web servers
  • Low-end dedicated server hosting
  • Email and basic SaaS delivery
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Facebook Opens New Data Center – And Shares Its Technology

Richard Fichera

A Peek Behind The Wizard's Curtain

The world of hyper scale web properties has been shrouded in secrecy, with major players like Google and Amazon releasing only tantalizing dribbles of information about their infrastructure architecture and facilities, on the presumption that this information represented critical competitive IP. In one bold gesture, Facebook, which has certainly catapulted itself into the ranks of top-tier sites, has reversed that trend by simultaneously disclosing a wealth of information about the design of its new data center in rural Oregon and contributing much of the IP involving racks, servers, and power architecture to an open forum in the hopes of generating an ecosystem of suppliers to provide future equipment to themselves and other growing web companies.

The Data Center

By approaching the design of the data center as an integrated combination of servers for known workloads and the facilities themselves, Facebook has broken some new ground in data center architecture with its facility.

At a high level, a traditional enterprise DC has a utility transformer that feeds power to a centralized UPS, and then power is subsequently distributed through multiple levels of PDUs to the equipment racks. This is a reliable and flexible architecture, and one that has proven its worth in generations of commercial data centers. Unfortunately, in exchange for this flexibility and protection, it extracts a penalty of 6% to 7% of power even before it reaches the IT equipment.

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Intel Ups The Ante At The High End With New E7 CPUs

Richard Fichera

Bigger, Better, Faster Xeon CPUs

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.
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Oracle Says No To Itanium – Embarrassment For Intel, Big Problem For HP

Richard Fichera

Oracle announced today that it is going to cease development for Itanium across its product line, stating that itbelieved, after consultation with Intel management, that x86 was Intel’s strategic platform. Intel of course responded with a press release that specifically stated that there were at least two additional Itanium products in active development – Poulsen (which has seen its initial specifications, if not availability, announced), and Kittson, of which little is known.

This is a huge move, and one that seems like a kick carefully aimed at the you know what’s of HP’s Itanium-based server business, which competes directly with Oracle’s SPARC-based Unix servers. If Oracle stays the course in the face of what will certainly be immense pressure from HP, mild censure from Intel, and consternation on the part of many large customers, the consequences are pretty obvious:

  • Intel loses prestige, credibility for Itanium, and a potential drop-off of business from its only large Itanium customer. Nonetheless, the majority of Intel’s server business is x86, and it will, in the end, suffer only a token loss of revenue. Intel’s response to this move by Oracle will be muted – public defense of Itanium, but no fireworks.
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ARM Servers - Calxeda Opens The Kimono For A Tantalizing Tease

Richard Fichera

Calxeda, one of the most visible stealth mode startups in the industry, has finally given us an initial peek at the first iteration of its server plans, and they both meet our inflated expectations from this ARM server startup and validate some of the initial claims of ARM proponents.

While still holding their actual delivery dates and details of specifications close to their vest, Calxeda did reveal the following cards from their hand:

  • The first reference design, which will be provided to OEM partners as well as delivered directly to selected end users and developers, will be based on an ARM Cortex A9 quad-core SOC design.
  • The SOC, as Calxeda will demonstrate with one of its reference designs, will enable OEMs to design servers as dense as 120 ARM quad-core nodes (480 cores) in a 2U enclosure, with an average consumption of about 5 watts per node (1.25 watts per core) including DRAM.
  • While not forthcoming with details about the performance, topology or protocols, the SOC will contain an embedded fabric for the individual quad-core SOC servers to communicate with each other.
  • Most significantly for prospective users, Calxeda is claiming, and has some convincing models to back up these claims, that they will provide a performance advantage of 5X to 10X the performance/watt and (even higher when price is factored in for a metric of performance/watt/$) of any products they expect to see when they bring the product to market.
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HP And Microsoft Ride The Converged Infrastructure Wave With Integrated Application Appliances

Richard Fichera

In another token that the movement toward converged infrastructures and vertically integrated solutions is becoming ever more mainstream, HP and Microsoft recently announced a line of specialized appliances that combine integrated hardware, software and pre-packaged software targeting Exchange email, business analytics with Microsoft SharePoint and PowerPivot, and data warehousing with SQL Server. The offerings include:

  • HP E5000 Messaging System – Microsoft Exchange mailboxes in standard sizes of 500 – 3000 mailboxes. This product incorporates a pair of servers derived from HP's blade family in a new 3U rack enclosure plus storage and Microsoft Exchange software. The product is installed as a turnkey system from HP.
  • HP Business Decision Appliance – Integrated servers and SQL Server PowerPivot software targeting analytics in midmarket and enterprise groups, tuned for 80 concurrent users. This offering is based on standard HP rack servers and integrated Microsoft software.
  • HP Enterprise Data Warehouse Appliance – Intended to compete with Oracle Exadata, at least for data warehouse applications, this is targeted at enterprise data warehouses in the 100s of Terabyte range. Like Exadata, it is a massive stack of integrated servers and software, including 13 HP rack servers, 10 of their MSA storage units and integrated Ethernet, Infiniband and FC networking, along with Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 Parallel Data Warehouse software.
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Intel Fires The First Shot Across The Bows Of ARM

Richard Fichera

Intel, despite a popular tendency to associate a dominant market position with indifference to competitive threats, has not been sitting still waiting for the ARM server phenomenon to engulf them in a wave of ultra-low-power servers. Intel is fiercely competitive, and it would be silly for any new entrants to assume that Intel will ignore a threat to the heart of a high-growth segment.

In 2009, Intel released a microserver specification for compact low-power servers, and along with competitor AMD, it has been aggressive in driving down the power envelope of its mainstream multicore x86 server products. Recent momentum behind ARM-based servers has heated this potential competition up, however, and Intel has taken the fight deeper into the low-power realm with the recent introduction of the N570, a an existing embedded low-power processor, as a server CPU aimed squarely at emerging ultra-low-power and dense servers. The N570, a dual-core Atom processor, is being currently used by a single server partner, ultra-dense server manufacturer SeaMicro (see Little Servers For Big Applications At Intel Developer Forum), and will allow them to deliver their current 512 Atom cores with half the number of CPU components and some power savings.

Technically, the N570 is a dual-core Atom CPU with 64 bit arithmetic, a differentiator against ARM, and the same 32-bit (4 GB) physical memory limitations as current ARM designs, and it should have a power dissipation of between 8 and 10 watts.

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Intel Discloses Details on “Poulson,” Next-Generation Itanium

Richard Fichera

This week at ISSCC, Intel made its first detailed public disclosures about its upcoming “Poulson” next-generation Itanium CPU. While not in any sense complete, the details they did disclose paint a picture of a competent product that will continue to keep the heat on in the high-end UNIX systems market. Highlights include:

  • Process — Poulson will be produced in a 32 nm process, skipping the intermediate 45 nm step that many observers expected to see as a step down from the current 65 nm Itanium process. This is a plus for Itanium consumers, since it allows for denser circuits and cheaper chips. With an industry record 3.1 billion transistors, Poulson needs all the help it can get keeping size and power down. The new process also promises major improvements in power efficiency.
  • Cores and cache — Poulson will have 8 cores and 54 MB of on-chip cache, a huge amount, even for a cache-sensitive architecture like Itanium. Poulson will have a 12-issue pipeline instead of the current 6-issue pipeline, promising to extract more performance from existing code without any recompilation.
  • Compatibility — Poulson is socket- and pin-compatible with the current Itanium 9300 CPU, which will mean that HP can move more quickly into production shipments when it's available.
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AMD Bumps Its Specs, Waits For Interlagos And Bulldozer

Richard Fichera

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.

IBM And ARM Continue Their Collaboration – Major Win For ARM

Richard Fichera

Last week IBM and ARM Holdings Plc quietly announced a continuation of their collaboration on advanced process technology, this time with a stated goal of developing ARM IP optimized for IBM physical processes down to a future 14 nm size. The two companies have been collaborating on semiconductors and SOC design since 2007, and this extension has several important ramifications for both companies and their competitors.

It is a clear indication that IBM retains a major interest in low-power and mobile computing, despite its previous divestment of its desktop and laptop computers to Lenovo, and that it will be in a position to harvest this technology, particularly ARM's modular approach to composing SOC systems, for future productization.

For ARM, the implications are clear. Its latest announced product, the Cortex A15, which will probably appear in system-level products in approximately 2013, will be initially produced in 32 nm with a roadmap to 20nm. The existence of a roadmap to a potential 14 nm product serves notice that the new ARM architecture will have a process roadmap that will keep it on Intel’s heels for another decade. ARM has parallel alliances with TSMC and Samsung as well, and there is no reason to think that these will not be extended, but the IBM alliance is an additional insurance policy. As well as a source of semiconductor technology, IBM has a deep well of systems and CPU IP that certainly cannot hurt ARM.

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