Extremes of x86 Servers Illustrate the Depth of the Ecosystem and the Diversity of Workloads

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.

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Red Hat Releases RHEL 7 – Linux Continues Its March To The Top

When the first Linux distributions based on the 3.0 kernel were released almost a year ago, I was struck by how far Linux had advanced. The latest turn of the crank for Linux, in the form of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7 (RHEL 7), reinforces this opinion. Built primarily on recent versions of the Linux 3.0 et seq kernel available to the entire Linux community, including SUSE, Red Hat, Cannonical and others, RHEL 7 continues the progress of the Linux community toward an OS that is fully capable of replacing proprietary RISC/UNIX for the vast majority of enterprise workloads. It is apparent, both from the details on RHEL 7 and from perusing the documentation on other distribution providers, that Linux has continued to mature nicely as both a foundation for large scale-out clouds as well as a strong contender for the kind of enterprise workloads that previously were only comfortable on either RISC/UNIX systems or large Microsoft Server systems. In effect, Linux has continued its maturation to the point where its feature set and scalability begin to look like and feel like a top-tier UNIX.

In addition to the required low-level plumbing – schedulers, memory management and file systems capable of keeping up with both high-volume transactions and operating effectively in large distributed clusters – Red Hat has also focused on features to improve the installation and management experience, thus directly reducing cost of ownership, following in the footsteps of other modern OS development trajectories.

Among the enterprise technology that caught my eye:

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Decoding Huawei – Emergence as a Major IT Player Looms

Last month I attended Huawei’s annual Global Analyst Summit, for the requisite several days of mass presentations, executive meetings and tours that typically constitute such an event. Underneath my veneer of blasé cynicism, I was actually quite intrigued, since I really knew very little about Huawei. And what I did know was tainted by popular and persistent negatives – they were the ones who supposedly copied Cisco’s IP to get into the network business, and, until we got better acquainted with our own Federal Government’s little shenanigans, Huawei was the big bad boogie man who was going to spy on us with every piece of network equipment they installed.

Reality was quite a bit different. Ancient disputes about IP aside, I found a $40B technology powerhouse who is probably the least-known and understood company of its size in the world, and one which appears poised to pose major challenges to incumbents in several areas, including mainstream enterprise IT.

So you don’t know Huawei

First, some basics. Huawei’s 2013 revenue was $39.5 Billion, which puts it right up there with some much better-known names such as Lenovo, Oracle, Dell and Cisco.

 

% Revenue / $ revenue (Billions)

Annual Growth rate

Telco & network equipment

70 / $27.7

7%

Consumer (mobile devices)

24 / $9.5

18%

Enterprise business (servers, storage, software)

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HP Hooks Up With Foxcon for Volume Servers

Yesterday HP announced that it will be entering into a “non-equity joint venture” (think big strategic contract of some kind with a lot of details still in flight) to address the large-scale web services providers. Under the agreement, Foxcon will design and manufacture and HP will be the primary sales channel for new servers targeted at hyper scale web service providers. The new servers will be branded HP but will not be part of the current ProLiant line of enterprise servers, and HP will deliver additional services along with hardware sales.

Why?

The motivation is simple underneath all the rhetoric. HP has been hard-pressed to make decent margins selling high-volume low-cost and no-frills servers to web service providers, and has been increasingly pressured by low-cost providers. Add to that the issue of customization, which these high-volume customers can easily get from smaller and more agile Asian ODMs and you have a strategic problem. Having worked at HP for four years I can testify to the fact that HP, a company maniacal about quality but encumbered with an effective but rigid set of processes around bringing new products to market, has difficulty rapidly turning around a custom design, and has a cost structure that makes it difficult to profitably compete for deals with margins that are probably in the mid-teens.

Enter the Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, more commonly known as Foxcon. A longtime HP partner and widely acknowledged as one of the most efficient and agile manufacturing companies in the world, Foxcon brings to the table the complementary strengths to match HP – agile design, tightly integrated with its manufacturing capabilities.

Who does what?

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IBM Announces Next Generation POWER Systems – Big Win for AIX Users, New Option for Linux

On April 23, IBM rolled out the long-awaited POWER8 CPU, the successor to POWER7+, and given the extensive pre-announcement speculation, the hardware itself was no big surprise (the details are fascinating, but not suitable for this venue), offering an estimated  30 - 50% improvement in application performance over the latest POWER7+, with potential for order of magnitude improvements with selected big data and analytics workloads. While the technology is interesting, we are pretty numb to the “bigger, better, faster” messaging that inevitably accompanies new hardware announcements, and the real impact of this announcement lies in its utility for current AIX users and IBM’s increased focus on Linux and its support of the OpenPOWER initiative.

Technology

OK, so we’re numb, but it’s still interesting. POWER8 is an entirely new processor generation implemented in 22 nm CMOS (the same geometry as Intel’s high-end CPUs). The processor features up to 12 cores, each with up to 8 threads, and a focus on not only throughput but high performance per thread and per core for low-thread-count applications. Added to the mix is up to 1 TB of memory per socket, massive PCIe 3 I/O connectivity and Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface (CAPI), IBM’s technology to deliver memory-controller-based access for accelerators and flash memory in POWER systems. CAPI figures prominently in IBM’s positioning of POWER as the ultimate analytics engine, with the announcement profiling the performance of a configuration using 40 TB of CAPI-attached flash for huge in-memory analytics at a fraction of the cost of a non-CAPI configuration.[i]

A Slam-dunk for AIX users and a new play for Linux

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Cisco UCS at Five Years – Successful Disruption and a New Status-Quo

March Madness – Five Years Ago

It was five years ago, March 2009, when Cisco formally announced  “Project California,” its (possibly intentionally) worst-kept secret, as Cisco Unified Computing System. At the time, I was working at Hewlett Packard, and our collective feelings as we realized that Cisco really did intend to challenge us in the server market were a mixed bag. Some of us were amused at their presumption, others were concerned that there might be something there, since we had odd bits and pieces of intelligence about the former Nuova, the Cisco spin-out/spin-in that developed UCS. Most of us were convinced that they would have trouble running a server business at margins we knew would be substantially lower than their margins in their core switch business. Sitting on top of our shiny, still relatively new HP c-Class BladeSystem, which had overtaken IBM’s BladeCenter as the leading blade product, we were collectively unconcerned, as well as puzzled about Cisco’s decision to upset a nice stable arrangement where IBM, HP and Dell sold possibly a Billion dollars’ worth of Cisco gear between them.

Fast Forward

Five years later, HP is still number one in blade server units and revenue, but Cisco appears to be now number two in blades, and closing in on number three world-wide in server sales as well. The numbers are impressive:

·         32,000 net new customers in five years, with 14,000 repeat customers

·         Claimed $2 Billion+ annual run-rate

·         Order growth rate claimed in “mid-30s” range, probably about three times the growth rate of any competing product line.

Lessons Learned

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Intel Bumps up High-End Servers with New Xeon E7 V2 - A Long Awaited and Timely Leap

The long draught at the high-end

It’s been a long wait, about four years if memory serves me well, since Intel introduced the Xeon E7, a high-end server CPU targeted at the highest performance per-socket x86, from high-end two socket servers to 8-socket servers with tons of memory and lots of I/O. In the ensuing four years (an eternity in a world where annual product cycles are considered the norm), subsequent generations of lesser Xeons, most recently culminating in the latest generation 22 nm Xeon E5 V2 Ivy Bridge server CPUs, have somewhat diluted the value proposition of the original E7.

So what is the poor high-end server user with really demanding single-image workloads to do? The answer was to wait for the Xeon E7 V2, and at first glance, it appears that the wait was worth it. High-end CPUs take longer to develop than lower-end products, and in my opinion Intel made the right decision to skip the previous generation 22nm Sandy Bridge architecture and go to Ivy Bridge, it’s architectural successor in the Intel “Tick-Tock” cycle of new process, then new architecture.

What was announced?

The announcement was the formal unveiling of the Xeon E7 V2 CPU, available in multiple performance bins with anywhere from 8 to 15 cores per socket. Critical specifications include:

  • Up to 15 cores per socket
  • 24 DIMM slots, allowing up to 1.5 TB of memory with 64 GB DIMMs
  • Approximately 4X I/O bandwidth improvement
  • New RAS features, including low-level memory controller modes optimized for either high-availability or performance mode (BIOS option), enhanced error recovery and soft-error reporting
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Lenovo Buys IBM x86 Server Business

Wow, wake up and it’s a whole new world – a central concept of many contemplative belief systems and a daily reality on the computer industry.  I woke up this morning to a pleseant New England day with low single-digit temperatures under a brilliant blue sky, and lo and behold, by the time I got to work, along came the news that Lenovo had acquired IBM’s x86 server business, essentially lock, stock and barrel. For IBM the deal is compelling, given that it has decided to move away from the volume hardware manufacturing business, giving them a long-term source for its needed hardware components, much as they did with PCs and other volume hardware in the past. Lenovo gains a world-class server product line for its existing channel organization that vastly expands its enterprise reach, along with about 7,500 engineering, sales and marketing employees who understand the enterprise server business.

What’s Included

The rumors have been circulating for about a year, but the reality is still pretty impressive – for $2.3 Billion in cash and stock, Lenovo acquired all x86 systems line, including the entire rack and blade line, Flex System, blade networking, and the newer NeXtScale and iDataPlex. In addition, Lenovo will have licensed access to many of the surrounding software and hardware components, including SmartCLoud Entry, Storewize, Director, Platform computing, GPFS, etc.

IBM will purchase hardware on an OEM basis to continue to deliver value-added integrated systems such as Pure Application and Pure Data systems.

What IBM Keeps

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Lenovo Buys IBM x86 Server Business

Wow, wake up and it’s a whole new world – a central concept of many contemplative belief systems and a daily reality on the computer industry. I woke up this morning to a pleseant New England day with low single-digit temperatures under a brilliant blue sky, and lo and behold, by the time I got to work, along came the news that Lenovo had acquired IBM’s x86 server business, essentially lock, stock and barrel. For IBM the deal is compelling, given that it has decided to move away from the volume hardware manufacturing business, giving them a long-term source for its needed hardware components, much as they did with PCs and other volume hardware in the past. Lenovo gains a world-class server product line for its existing channel organization that vastly expands its enterprise reach, along with about 7,500 engineering, sales and marketing employees who understand the enterprise server business.

What’s Included

The rumors have been circulating for about a year, but the reality is still pretty impressive – for $2.3 Billion in cash and stock, Lenovo acquired all x86 systems line, including the entire rack and blade line, Flex System, blade networking, and the newer NeXtScale and iDataPlex. In addition, Lenovo will have licensed access to many of the surrounding software and hardware components, including SmartCLoud Entry, Storewize, Director, Platform computing, GPFS, etc.

IBM will purchase hardware on an OEM basis to continue to deliver value-added integrated systems such as Pure Application and Pure Data systems.

What IBM Keeps

IBM will keep its mainframe, Power Systems including its Flex System Power systems, and its storage business, and will both retain and expand its service and integration business, as well as provide support for the new Lenovo server offerings.

What Does it Mean for IBM Customers?

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IBM is First Mover with Disruptive Flash Memory Technology on New x6 Servers

This week, IBM announced its new line of x86 servers, and included among the usual incremental product improvements is a performance game-changer called eXFlash. eXFlash is the first commercially available implantation of the MCS architecture announced last year by Diablo Technologies. The MCS architecture, and IBM’s eXFlash offering in particular, allows flash memory to be embedded on the system as close to the CPU as main memory, with latencies substantially lower than any other available flash options, offering better performance at a lower solution cost than other embedded flash solutions. Key aspects of the announcement include:

■  Flash DIMMs offer scalable high performance. Write latency (a critical metric) for IBM eXFlash will be in the 5 to 10 microsecond range, whereas best-of-breed competing mezzanine card and PCIe flash can only offer 15 to 20 microseconds (and external flash storage is slower still). Additionally, since the DIMMs are directly attached to the memory controller, flash I/O does not compete with other I/O on the system I/O hub and PCIe subsystem, improving overall system performance for heavily-loaded systems. Additional benefits include linear performance scalability as the number of DIMMs increase and optional built-in hardware mirroring of DIMM pairs.

■  eXFlash DIMMs are compatible with current software. Part of the magic of MCS flash is that it appears to the OS as a standard block-mode device, so all existing block-mode software will work, including applications, caching and tiering or general storage management software. For IBM users, compatibility with IBM’s storage management and FlashCache Storage Accelerator solutions is guaranteed. Other vendors will face zero to low effort in qualifying their solutions.

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