Vendors enhance server strategies

The promise of continued growth is driving server vendors to take advantage of new processor technologies and software developments for different server platforms.

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By  Peter Branton Published  April 24, 2005

Introduction|~||~||~|The server industry has witnessed a flurry of activities on different fronts this past year. For example, there was the growing momentum on 64-bit computing for the x86 architecture, the Longhorn delay and the revisions Microsoft is planning to incorporate for its 2006 release, and the race between Intel and AMD to go-to-market with the first dual-core processors. Overall, the market is still a healthy one, closing at US$49 billion by the end of last year or US$14.4 billion in the fourth quarter of 2004. This is the seventh consecutive quarter that the server market exhibited positive growth. In general, the game plan of most IT vendors is to improve server performance while keeping costs to a minimum, and to leverage on maturing technology such as grid computing, server virtualisation, Linux and blade servers. In the coming months (and years), expect a string of announcements, especially in the processor side, as players take advantage of new processor and software innovations. ||**||AMD|~||~||~|The past two years can be considered some of AMD’s finest when it finally bumped Intel into playing catch-up with the release of several key server technologies. AMD first hogged the limelight during the launch of its Opteron processor, when it brought 64-bit extensions to the current 32-bit architecture. What made a significant impact in the industry is the fact that the company’s 64-bit technology made it possible to simultaneously process 32-bit applications. To mark Opteron’s second year anniversary, AMD also plans to release a dual-core version of the processor later this month. Dual-core processors consist of two cores on a single piece of silicon. It is seen as a promising way to improve computing power, enabling servers, workstations and PCs to perform more functions at the same time. The manufacture of dual-core chips was partly driven by the fact that single-core silicon can no longer accommodate faster processing cycles because it has already reached its limitations when it comes to heat dissipation and power consumption. AMD expects the industry’s leading operating system vendors to support the upcoming AMD 64 dual-core products. These include Microsoft Windows, Novell and Red Hat Enterprise Linux distributions, and Sun Microsystems’ Solaris 10. Some of the operating systems will include optimisations that will make it possible for applications to fully utilise the multi-core capabilities of AMD64, AMD claims. ||**||Intel|~||~||~|For Intel, three key trends will stand out in the server landscape during the coming years: server virtualisation, utility computing and 64-bit computing. According to Ferhad Patel, marketing development manager for Intel in the Middle East and North Africa region, says that adoption of server virtualisation is on the increase with 40% growth expected in 2007. “Virtualisation technology is already transforming the way many IT organisations provision and manage their systems and applications onto a single platform. This helps to reduce server proliferation, increase utilisation, simplify IT infrastructure, and reduce management costs,” says Patel. “When used in conjunction with rapid software provisioning tools, it can also enable flexible and dynamic management of hardware resources to address shifting workload requirements. These capabilities are delivering substantial value for many businesses, and adoption is expected to increase dramatically over the next few years.” Faced with the limitations of 32-bit systems, Patel says they have observed an increasing inclination by companies to adopt 64-bit computing in mainstream applications. Intel currently offers two complementary 64-bit architectures: the Intel Itanium 2 processor-based platforms and the 64-bit Intel Xeon processor-based platforms with EM64T (Extended Memory 64 Technology). Further ahead, Intel is getting ready for its big leap towards dual-core processing. Currently, there are around 15 dual-core development plans underway, in addition to merging 64-bit processing and dual-core capabilities in its Extreme Edition processor family. The company expects that by the end of 2006, 85% of server processors shipped will be dual-core. ||**||IBM|~||~||~|The current leader in the server space, IBM is banking on a straightforward approach to maintain a major stake at the market. Perhaps the impressive performance of its dual-core Power5 processor, which saw Big Blue winning on the high-end Unix sector, has convinced Big Blue to stick to a simple formula. Unlike its competitors, IBM’s server plans are clear-cut: Power5+ this year, Power6 in 2006, Power6+ in 2007, Power7 in 2008 and Power7+ in 2009. Key to Power5’s success is its affinity to Linux, which has resulted into major memory and resource-allocation design enhancements. IBM is not deterred by low expectations for the Linux server market. In fact, it has released a Power5 server line exclusively for Linux, which it is pitching against low-end x86 servers running on Intel’s Xeon and AMD’s Opteron processors. “Linux-based servers have gained momentum at rapid speed across the region in the last couple of years, and we believe that widespread adoption is now inevitable,” says Wael Abdoush, systems and technology group manager for IBM Middle East and Pakistan. “We have seen tremendous growth in the use of Linux-based servers over the last few years across industries ranging from oil and gas, telecom, ISPs to education institutions, and we feel that this growth will continue to accelerate as more and more organisations start seeing the benefits that this open platform can provide.” On top of that, the company has also set ambitious objectives for its blade servers. It has partnered with Cisco and Brocade Systems to incorporate gigabit Ethernet and fibre channel switches to its BladeCenter solutions in a bid to further boost the systems’ features and performance. ||**||Sun|~||~||~|Sun Microsystems’ server processor roadmap comprise of both new projects and cancellations. On the plus side, it is developing its own multi-core version — with the first product line, dubbed Niagara, already scheduled for release early next year - and is involved in a chip partnership deal with Fujitsu to improve its SPARC-based offerings. But on the down side, Sun has decided to withdraw its UltraSPARC and Gemini chip developments in an effort to maintain profitability. Niagara will mark Sun’s reinvention of its server business as it moves from a single proprietary platform to multiple offerings on several architectures, including x86. A primary feature of the processor will be Sun’s very own chip multithreading (CMT) technology. The technology is designed to allow each of the processor cores found on a single chip to manage individual instruction sequences called threads. According to Sun, in today’s processors, a large chunk of processing time is wasted waiting for data to be retrieved from memory. The new approach will significantly reduce the time spent on data retrieval by accommodating a new thread while previous ones are waiting for data. With Niagara, Sun says it will be able to fit eight cores, each one able to process four threads or a total of 32 threads simultaneously. With Niagara still in production, Sun is already prepping up the arrival of second-generation Niagara chips and the ‘Rock’ processor in 2008. Rock will apply some of Niagara’s multi-processing technology but will be positioned for more demanding and higher-end applications. At the same time, Sun plans to keep its SPARC lineage alive by joining Fujitsu in a chip partnership deal called the Advanced Product Line, or APL, to bring together their Solaris and SPARC-based server product lines by mid-2006. When completed, the APL will replace Sun’s and Fujitsu’s existing Sun Fire and PRIMEPOWER product lines, respectively. Sun is convinced that a RISC-Unix environment can be a price-competitive alternative to Intel-based systems. “Price performance in the low-end Unix space is growing much faster than the Wintel platform,” says Graham Porter, marketing manager, Sun Microsystems Middle East and North Africa. “Also remember that Unix is much more prevalent for mission-critical applications and Solaris is a rock-solid operating system with the largest ISV adoption in the Unix space,” he adds. FSC Its recent partnership with Sun and the launch of a new Itanium-based server line makes it understandably clear that Fujitsu Siemens Computer (FSC) is emphasising high-performance computing, especially that of 64-bit computing. Early this month, FSC has unveiled PRIMEQUEST, its latest server family based on Intel’s Itanium 2 processor. The two systems available, PRIMEQUEST 480 and 440, are designed for mission-critical environments such as large-scale database systems and online transaction processing running on either Linux or Windows operating systems. The servers, which are being positioned to replace older mainframes or Unix servers from HP and IBM, consist of either 32 or 16 processors and initially run on Intel’s Madison Itanium 2 chips but future versions will use the dual-core Montecito processors, the company says. Alongside the new server launch, FSC’s APL joint agreement with Sun is considered as a major part of its server strategy. APL will be a joint development and marketing effort of the two companies, which will see the merging of their SPARC processors by 2006. Key to the partnership is FSC’s upcoming Olympus processor from which the upcoming APL servers will be based. Olympus is a variant of FSC’s SPARC64 VI processor, which the company was developing for its PRIMEPOWER Unix servers. FSC sees APL not as a transitional offering but more of a long-term strategic move to maintain its competitiveness. “This is not a short-term partnership. Both companies will benefit from the joint development for R&D investments, a faster time-to-market response time, and it will definitely take market share from our competitors,” says Bernd Bischoff, the company’s president and chief executive. According to Fujitsu senior managing director Junji Maeyama the APL partnership will help the company avoid the financial risks that is looming in the Unix market in the midst of the ongoing shift to Linux servers. “If we continue the [Unix] server business under the current form, we may face a major deadlock. As development costs of processors [for Unix-based servers] are ballooning, we may eventually lose competitiveness. This is why we decided on an alliance with Sun,” says Maeyama. “In theory, by sharing the development costs, we can cut such costs by half,” he explains. Microsoft At the heart of Microsoft’s server strategy is the much talked about Longhorn operating system. Delayed until 2006 (at the earliest), Microsoft is making most of the time available prior to Longhorn’s beta release to refine some of its capabilities, among which are changes to three of its key features. The first major change will be the exclusion of WinFS, its desktop file system, from the operating system release; instead, it will be made available in beta copies of Longhorn’s client version. The other two significant rework is the availability of Avalon — Longhorn’s new graphics engine — and Indigo — a communication architecture — to older systems such as Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. With the changes Microsoft hopes to lure more developers to write applications based on the new technologies, but Longhorn’s ability to perform without hiccups, more than anything else, will gauge its success among developers. For now, Microsoft has set Longhorn’s availability for desktops and notebooks by next year, followed by servers in 2007, although a sneak peek of the server version is available with R2, the next update of Windows Server 2003. In Microsoft’s calendar, a 64-bit extended systems release for Windows Server 2003 will be available in the first half of 2005. This will include support for both AMD Opteron and Intel Xeon EM64T. The second half of the year is slated for the release of R2 and Longhorn’s beta version, while 2006 will see the release of Longhorn Beta 2 and Windows Server 2003 service pack 2. HP HP has started its plan to put more emphasis on Intel’s Itanium processor by migrating its 64-bit server products to the processor over time. The company’s overall goal is to unify its servers that are currently running the Alpha processor, the PA-RISC processor and the MIPS processor and transition it to the Itanium processor. For starters, HP is phasing out the production of its AlphaServer product line this year, although it will continue to be sold until 2006 and supported until 2011. Eventually, H P plans to merge AlphaServer systems and servers based on the PA-RISC processor into a single enterprise server line by 2005. Operating system will play a key role in HP’s server strategy. The company’s migration plans for its over 400,000 OpenVMS users worldwide will largely be based on an OpenVMS operating system that can be fully ported to Itanium. Likewise, enhancements to HP-UX 11i will offer operating system parity between HP 9000 and Itanium-based Integrity servers. The NonStop Kernel (NSK) platforms, which is based on the MIPS processor will be moved to the Itanium platform in the future, although its availability for now will continue for some time. HP is currently working on an NSK platform for Itanium, which it plans to release next year. Dell Dell is planning to shed off its PC maker image and wants to concentrate more on other products, including servers. The company sees a huge potential in 64-bit computing, blade and single-processor server markets. According to Dell chief executive Kevin Rollins, it plans to expand the types of servers it offers as part of its objective to reach US$80 billion in annual revenues for the next three to four years. The company has already launched blades and is flaunting its work on grids and high-performance computing clusters. Among its latest project is the Project MegaGrid, a joint effort with Oracle, EMC and Intel to deliver low-cost computer grids based on Intel’s x86 architecture and running on Oracle databases. On top of that, it has launched two new servers, a software update, professional services and an Oracle competency centre as part of Project MegaGrid. Dell intends to push inexpensive clusters of two-way and four-way systems into the data centre, which promises the same performance quality larger and higher-end systems offer. Already it has launched two four-way servers, the PowerEdge 6800 and 6850, that run Oracle’s 10g and 9i databases. The servers are based on the Xeon processor and are optimised for dual-processing capabilities . ||**||

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