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.
Intel has been publishing research for about a decade on what they call “3D Trigate” transistors, which held out the hope for both improved performance as well as power efficiency. Today Intel revealed details of its commercialization of this research in its upcoming 22 nm process as well as demonstrating actual systems based on 22 nm CPU parts.
The new products, under the internal name of “Ivy Bridge”, are the process shrink of the recently announced Sandy Bridge architecture in the next “Tock” cycle of the famous Intel “Tick-Tock” design methodology, where the “Tick” is a new optimized architecture and the “Tock” is the shrinking of this architecture onto then next generation semiconductor process.
What makes these Trigate transistors so innovative is the fact that they change the fundamental geometry of the semiconductors from a basically flat “planar” design to one with more vertical structure, earning them the description of “3D”. For users the concepts are simpler to understand – this new transistor design, which will become the standard across all of Intel’s products moving forward, delivers some fundamental benefits to CPUs implemented with them:
Leakage current is reduced to near zero, resulting in very efficient operation for system in an idle state.
Power consumption at equivalent performance is reduced by approximately 50% from Sandy Bridge’s already improved results with its 32 nm process.
Since Oracle dropped their bombshell on HP and Itanium, I have fielded multiple emails and about a dozen inquiries from HP and Oracle customers wanting to discuss their options and plans. So far, there has been no general sense of panic, and the scenarios seem to be falling into several buckets:
The majority of Oracle DB/HP customers are not at the latest revision of Oracle, so they have a window within which to make any decisions, bounded on the high end by the time it will take them to make a required upgrade of their application plus DB stack past the current 11.2 supported Itanium release. For those customers still on Oracle release 9, this can be many years, while for those currently on 11.2, the next upgrade cycle will cause a dislocation. The most common application that has come up in inquiries is SAP, with Oracle’s own apps second.
Customers with other Oracle software, such as Hyperion, Peoplesoft, Oracle’s eBusiness Suite, etc., and other ISV software are often facing complicated constraints on their upgrades. In some cases decisions by the ISVs will drive the users toward upgrades they do not want to make. Several clients told me they will defer ISV upgrades to avoid being pushed into an unsupported version of the DB.
Egenera, arguably THE pioneer in what the industry is now calling converged infrastructure, has had a hard life. Early to market in 2000 with a solution that was approximately a decade ahead of its time, it offered an elegant abstraction of physical servers into what chief architect Maxim Smith described as “fungible and anonymous” resources connected by software defined virtual networks. Its interface was easy to use, allowing the definition of virtualized networks, NICs, servers with optional failover and pools of spare resources with a fluidity that has taken the rest of the industry almost 10 years to catch up to. Unfortunately this elegant presentation was chained to a completely proprietary hardware architecture, which encumbered the economics of x86 servers with an obsolete network fabric, expensive system controller and physical architecture (but it was the first vendor to include blue lights on its servers). The power of the PanManager software was enough to keep the company alive, but not enough to overcome the economics of the solution and put them on a fast revenue path, especially as emerging competitors began to offer partial equivalents at lower costs. The company is privately held and does not disclose revenues, but Forrester estimates it is still less than $100 M in annual revenues.
In approximately 2006, Egenera began the process of converting its product to a pure software offering capable of running on commodity server hardware and standard Ethernet switches. In subsequent years they have announced distribution arrangements with Fujitsu (an existing partner for their earlier products) and an OEM partnership with Dell, which apparently was not successful, since Dell subsequently purchased Scalent, an emerging software competitor. Despite this, Egenera claims that its software business is growing and has been a factor in the company’s first full year of profitability.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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…