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…
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.
On Dec. 2, Oracle announced the next move in its program to integrate its hardware and software assets, with the introduction of Oracle Private Cloud Architecture, an integrated infrastructure stack with Infiniband and/or 10G Ethernet fabric, integrated virtualization, management and servers along with software content, both Oracle’s and customer-supplied. Oracle has rolled out the architecture as a general platform for a variety of cloud environments, along with three specific implementations, Exadata, Exalogic and the new Sunrise Supercluster, as proof points for the architecture.
Exadata has been dealt with extensively in other venues, both inside Forrester and externally, and appears to deliver the goods for I&O groups who require efficient consolidation and maximum performance from an Oracle database environment.
Exalogic is a middleware-targeted companion to the Exadata hardware architecture (or another instantiation of Oracle’s private cloud architecture, depending on how you look at it), presenting an integrated infrastructure stack ready to run either Oracle or third-party apps, although Oracle is positioning it as a Java middleware platform. It consists of the following major components integrated into a single rack:
Oracle x86 or T3-based servers and storage.
Oracle Quad-rate Infiniband switches and the Oracle Solaris gateway, which makes the Infiniband network look like an extension of the enterprise 10G Ethernet environment.
Oracle Linux or Solaris.
Oracle Enterprise Manager Ops Center for management.
Oracle recently announced the availability of Solaris 11 Express, the first iteration of its Solaris 11 product cycle. The feature set of this release is along the lines promised by Oracle at their August analyst event this year, including:
Scalability enhancements to set it up for future systems with higher core counts and requirements to schedule large numbers of threads.
Improvements to zFS, Oracle’s highly scalable file system.
Reduction of boot times to the range of 10 seconds — a truly impressive accomplishment.
Optimizations to support Oracle Exadata and Exalogic integrated solutions. While some of these changes may be very specific to Oracle’s stack, most of them are almost certain to improve any application that requires some combination of high thread counts, large memory and low-latency communications with either 10G Ethernet or Infiniband.
Improvements in availability due to reductions on the number of reboot scenarios, improvements in patching and improved error recovery. This is hard to measure, but Oracle claims they are close to an OS which does not need to come down for normal maintenance, a goal of all of the major UNIX vendors and long a signature of mainframe environments.
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.