I'm at IDF, a major geekfest for the people interested in the guts of today’s computing infrastructure, and will be immersing myself in the flow for a couple of days. Before going completely off the deep end, I wanted to call out the announcement of the new Xeon E5. While I’ve discussed it in more depth in an accompanying Quick Take just published on our main website, I wanted to add some additional comments on its implications for data center operations, particularly in the areas of capacity planning and long-term capital budgeting.
For many years, each successive iteration of Intel’s and partners’ roadmaps has been quietly delivering a major benefit that seldom gets top billing – additional capacity within the same power and physical footprint, and the resulting ability for users from small enterprises to mega-scale service providers, to defer additional data spending capital expense.
I’ve recently been thinking a lot about application-specific workloads and architectures (Optimize Scalalable Workload-Specific Infrastructure for Customer Experiences), and it got me to thinking about the extremes of the server spectrum – the very small and the very large as they apply to x86 servers. The range, and the variation in intended workloads is pretty spectacular as we diverge from the mean, which for the enterprise means a 2-socket Xeon server, usually in 1U or 2U form factors.
At the bottom, we find really tiny embedded servers, some with very non-traditional packaging. My favorite is probably the technology from Arnouse digital technology, a small boutique that produces computers primarily for military and industrial ruggedized environments.
Slightly bigger than a credit card, their BioDigital server is a rugged embedded server with up to 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB SSD and a very low power footprint. Based on an Atom-class CPU, thus is clearly not the choice for most workloads, but it is an exemplar of what happens when the workload is in a hostile environment and the computer maybe needs to be part of a man-carried or vehicle-mounted portable tactical or field system. While its creators are testing the waters for acceptance as a compute cluster with up to 4000 of them mounted in a standard rack, it’s likely that these will remain a niche product for applications requiring the intersection of small size, extreme ruggedness and complete x86 compatibility, which includes a wide range of applications from military to portable desktop modules.
Background — High Performance Attached Processors Handicapped By Architecture
The application of high-performance accelerators, notably GPUs, GPGPUs (APUs in AMD terminology) to a variety of computing problems has blossomed over the last decade, resulting in ever more affordable compute power for both horizon and mundane problems, along with growing revenue streams for a growing industry ecosystem. Adding heat to an already active mix, Intel’s Xeon Phi accelerators, the most recent addition to the GPU ecosystem, have the potential to speed adoption even further due to hoped-for synergies generated by the immense universe of x86 code that could potentially run on the Xeon Phi cores.
However, despite any potential synergies, GPUs (I will use this term generically to refer to all forms of these attached accelerators as they currently exist in the market) suffer from a fundamental architectural problem — they are very distant, in terms of latency, from the main scalar system memory and are not part of the coherent memory domain. This in turn has major impacts on performance, cost, design of the GPUs, and the structure of the algorithms:
Performance — The latency for memory accesses generally dictated by PCIe latencies, which while much improved over previous generations, are a factor of 100 or more longer than latency from coherent cache or local scalar CPU memory. While clever design and programming, such as overlapping and buffering multiple transfers can hide the latency in a series of transfers, it is difficult to hide the latency for an initial block of data. Even AMD’s integrated APUs, in which the GPU elements are on a common die, do not share a common memory space, and explicit transfers are made in and out of the APU memory.
I recently bought myself a Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 running Windows 8 because I want a tablet device that can really run Windows and PowerPoint when I need them, and I have found all the iPad Office solutions to be lacking in some fashion. When I saw the new Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, it was love at first byte.
Like in all relationships, some of the new has worn off, and since it’s “Internet time”, it has only taken a couple of weeks as opposed to years to see my partner in a more realistic light.
So, here is my list of the good and the bad (architecturally, structurally) and bugly (things that can probably be fixed).
The Good – Excellent Hardware, Fluid and Attractive Interface
There are many good things to say about this combination:
It’s the lightest Windows device I have ever owned, and its general performance and usability is light years ahead of a horrible Netbook I bought for one of my sons about two years ago.
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.
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.
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.
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.